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Kennedy, Wetterling stage final 6th District debate
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Before the start of Sunday night's debate, KSTP anchorwoman Cindy Brucato goes over the ground rules with candidates Patty Wetterling and Mark Kennedy. (MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)
The candidates in one of Minnesota's hottest congressional races met for what is expected to be their final debate of the campaign Sunday night. Sixth District incumbent Republican Mark Kennedy and his Democratic challenger Patty Wetterling met at the studios of KSTP-TV in the Twin Cities. The debate outlined their differences over issues including the best way to fight terrorism and how to expedite the return of U.S. troops from Iraq.

St. Paul, Minn. — The 6th Congressional District consists of six counties -- Stearns, Benton, and Sherburne, which includes the city of St. Cloud. Wright, Anoka, and Washington counties make an arc around the Twin Cities and include many northern and eastern suburbs.

Republican Mark Kennedy is a former accountant and two-term incumbent congressman. Democrat Patty Wetterling became known as an advocate for the families of missing children after her own son was abducted in Stearns County in 1989.

The debate was televised live by KSTP and was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters. It focused primarily on issues, but both candidates made scattered allegations of distortions and negative campaigning.

On the question of how to fight terrorism, Kennedy insists the battleground is overseas, and he emphasized his visits to Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.

"The root of terrorism is the hopelessness that exists in the Arab world," Kennedy says. "That hopelessness is where terrorism breeds. And the only way we're going to win this war on terrorism is by piercing through that hopelessness, with the hope that democracy and free markets can provide."

Wetterling agrees with the goal of spreading hope through Arab countries. But she says strengthening local law enforcement is also essential to the fight, citing the case of alleged terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui as evidence.

"It's too simplistic to say that we can just win it over there," Wetterling says. "We have our work to do here. We know that Moussoui took flight training lessons here in Minnesota. We need to empower local law enforcement with the tools that they need so that they can respond, and the communications infrastructure so that we can build a safer world all around."

As for how to speed the return of U.S. troops from Iraq, Wetterling says the work of policing the country should be shared by more nations. She says that would help Iraqis see the rebuilding of their country as more than a U.S. effort.

"As Mark said, they need hope," Wetterling said of the Iraqi people. "They need to believe in a better future for them. I think that can only happen when we have international support and more troops from other countries -- so that they own it, so that it's theirs. And then I think we have to come up with a timeline to bring our troops safely home."

Kennedy says it's Iraqi police forces, not international troops, who will replace the U.S. presence. He says the current emphasis on training Iraqis to secure their own country is appropriate.

"What most people don't focus on is in most of these battles that've been going on, there's been thousands -- not just American faces, as Mrs. Wetterling is suggesting -- but thousands of Iraqi troops that I saw being trained when I was there in August," Kennedy says. "They are standing on the front lines. Almost every single attack you hear of recently has been on Iraqi national guards. We need to train them."

When the debate turned to domestic issues, the candidates agreed on the need to reduce the budget deficit, but not on the way to achieve that. Wetterling says recent tax cuts should be restructured so that the 2 percent of Americans with the highest incomes pay more. She maintains that would allow for a tax reduction for those with lower incomes.

Kennedy says the way to tame the deficit is through job growth. He says the federal government can promote that growth by not raising taxes and by cutting spending. Kennedy mentioned closing military bases and eliminating passenger railroad subsidies as ways to cut federal spending.

Wetterling supports re-importation of prescription drugs from Canada, a country that has price controls. Wetterling says the need for importing cheaper medicine would be reduced if the U.S. negotiated lower prices from pharmaceutical companies, particularly for the Medicare program.

"I was really rather appalled that with the Medicare bill, the United States put itself in a position of not negotiating better prices for our seniors," says Wetterling. "I would like to change that. I think we can negotate better prescription drug prices, and at the same time I would support re-importation of drugs from Canada."

Kennedy says federal changes are now giving seniors discounts on their prescription drug purchases, and assuring that those with especially low incomes or high costs have their expenses covered. He says people who want to purchase medicine from Canada should be allowed to do so at their own risk.

"I've supported re-importation if it's individuals that want to take the risk on safety into their own hands," he says. "But if we're going to totally open the borders and disallow the FDA from assuring that these prescription drugs are going to heal you and not kill you, I think we're taking a big risk."

This was the third and final debate between Kennedy and Wetterling.

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