The three candidates sparred in front of an often vocal, overflow crowd. The audience, which was dominated by Amy Klobuchar supporters, cheered when the DFLer criticized Kennedy. Some audience members even heckled Kennedy.
ATTORNEY VS. ACCOUNTANT
It didn't take long for the candidates themselves to mix it up. Right from the start, Kennedy renewed his criticism of Klobuchar's career as Hennepin County prosecutor and a lobbyist, and said the Senate doesn't need any more people with her background.
"We already have nearly two out of three senators who are a lawyer, and 35,000 lobbyists in Washington," said Kennedy. "How about a CPA for a change? I would be the only CPA in the Senate, and one look at the budget says we need at least one CPA in the U.S. Senate."
Klobuchar shot back, saying Kennedy did little to address the budget problems during his time in Congress between 2001 and the present.
"Congressman Kennedy, I don't know who would want to hire an accountant who took a $200 billion surplus and turned it into a $300 billion deficit," said Klobuchar.
Klobuchar and Kennedy spent most of their time touting their policy positions and criticizing each other. They paid little attention to Independence Party member Robert Fitzgerald, of Rothsay, who sometimes tried to calm the audience and tone down the discussion.
Fitzgerald aimed more of his criticism at Kennedy than Klobuchar, and tried to reach voters who may be tired of bickering between Democrats and Republicans.
"There's a definition of insanity -- that's doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result," said Fitzgerald. "Minnesotans have a choice this coming fall, and they can vote independent. And that's where they can get an independent voice in Washington representing other Minnesotans."
The race for Minnesota's Senate seat is being watched closely by both the Democratic and Republican national parties. DFLer Mark Dayton is retiring, and the open seat could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.
On the issue of the war in Iraq, Fitzgerald is the only candidate who supports an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.
"Last year at the state fair, I said we need to bring more troops into Iraq to provide the safety and security of the Iraqi civilian base. We have not been able to do that," Fitzgerald said. "And last month we had 3,400 civilian deaths in Iraq, 100 a day. We have a great military, a very competent military, but it's not a police force. We need to get out of Iraq."
Republican Mark Kennedy said it was vital to stay the course on the war in Iraq and the global war on terror. He said withdrawing U.S. forces now would send a terrible message to terrorist organizations around the world.
"If we accept defeat after all of this has happened, we would allow Iraq to become a sanctuary for terrorists to regroup and attack America again," said Kennedy. "The path to safety is to make sure we prevail in Iraq, and make sure we also go beyond that. To address Iran and not let them either stir up trouble in Iraq or in Lebanon, Syria and other challenges."
Klobuchar says she prefers a plan that would start removing some U.S. troops from the country, but doesn't support a deadline for withdrawing all forces. Klobuchar said she opposed the war in Iraq from the start, accused President Bush of mismanaging the war and called for a change of course.
Klobuchar said she would be the candidate who would challenge the Bush administration on the war, while Kennedy would do nothing.
"I don't believe we can withdraw immediately, but I believe that we need to start bringing our troops home this year to transition to Iraqi governance," Klobuchar said. "I think we need to send someone to Washington who is not going to be a rubber stamp of the president's policies in Iraq."
THE BUSH FACTOR
Klobuchar also brought up Kennedy's record of siding with President Bush in nine votes out of every 10. Kennedy accuses Klobuchar of being overly negative, but also repeated a line he has used to distance himself from the president.
"There's an obsession with President Bush. Call me old-fashioned, but last time I checked, it's my name on the ballot," Kennedy said. "And we should be talking about where does Mark Kennedy and Amy Klobuchar stand."
Kennedy also said Klobuchar has yet to say where she differs with top Democrats like Mark Dayton, Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy. Klobuchar said she didn't examine their voting records but differed with Dayton on the decision to confirm the current CIA director, Michael Hayden. She said she would have voted to confirm him.
The candidates also brought up their opponents' personal and campaign finances. Kennedy said Klobuchar was trying to play both sides of the oil issue, saying she's criticizing oil companies while she is personally invested in them.
"I'm wondering if you are troubled by the fact of the inconsistency, between you demonizing the oil companies as the central theme of your campaign, and the fact that your largest single holding in your mutual funds is Exxon Mobil," Kennedy said.
Klobuchar replied that she didn't know all of the holdings in her mutual funds. She said it was Kennedy who was being disingenuous, for taking political donations from oil companies.
"You are running an ad saying you want to go after the oil companies, when in fact you have taken $55,000 from oil company PACs for your campaigns over the years," Klobuchar said. "So in effect, the oil companies are paying for the ad saying you're going to take on the oil companies. I don't think this was the best question for you to ask Congressman Kennedy."
Kennedy then quipped that the Yale-educated Klobuchar should know what's in her mutual funds, especially since she says she'll follow the money if elected.
Kennedy also criticized Klobuchar for taking $500,000 from EMILY'S List, a group that backs female candidates who support legalized abortion.
On the federal budget, Kennedy said keeping taxes low helps businesses thrive. Kennedy says President Bush's tax cuts, which he supported, are making the economy stronger and are shrinking the deficit.
Kennedy said Klobuchar's recent plan to repeal the tax cuts on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, roll back tax cuts on oil companies, and close foreign tax loopholes would amount to a $3 trillion tax increase.
Klobuchar defended her budget proposal as helping the middle class and harming only people who could buy yachts. She then criticized Kennedy for proposing trillions of dollars in new spending without saying how he'll pay for it.
"Your proposal, Congressman Kennedy -- it reminds me of when I was at the beer garden and I was hearing some kids talking, 'I got too much foam in my beer,' this college student said. Your proposal is all foam and no beer."
For his part, the Independence Party's Fitzgerald criticized Kennedy's assessment that the Bush tax cuts were reducing the deficit. He said the federal government needs to better control the escalating pricetag of Medicare and Social Security.
Fitzgerald also said the federal government needs to make access to health insurance less dependent on having a job. Fitzgerald said he opposes a single-payer, government-funded universal health care system, because the federal government has not done a good job of controlling costs.
"We cannot have the federal government be the ones writing this legislation, when it will turn out like our energy policy or our prescription drug policy ,and it will end up being a multi-billion dollar giveaway to our insurance companies," said Fitzgerald.
Kennedy, the Republican in the race, said he prefers a plan that supports a consumer-driven health care model. That approach allows employees and businesses to contribute to a special account that an employee can use to pay medical bills. He also opposes a government-funded universal health care program.
"We don't want a one-size-fits-all solution that brings the compassion of the IRS, the efficiency of the post office and timeliness of Amtrak to health care," said Kennedy.
Klobuchar said she supports moving to a universal health care system. She would pay for it by allowing the federal government to negotiate discounts on prescription drugs for Medicare recipients. Klobuchar would also allow the reimportation of prescription drugs from abroad.
This is the first of several scheduled debates between Kennedy and Klobuchar. The two campaigns have agreed to six more debates to be held in the Twin Cities, Rochester, Moorhead and Washington D.C. The campaigns said they may be open to one more televised debate.