The three candidates were cordial at first, amiably discussing health care, transportation, education and taxes. But their comments became more pointed as the debate continued. DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch blamed Gov. Pawlenty for higher property taxes, fees, health care premiums and college tuition.
"I'm at a place giving a speech, a crane operator stands up and he says, 'listen, my kid, I saved $10,000 so she'd be the first to go to college, she went to the University of Minnesota Morris. She incurred $50,000 in debt, graduated, didn't have a job that's sustainable enough to pay it back, and doesn't have health care.' This is wrong. I want that tuition reversed, and by George, I'm going to do it," Hatch said.
Gov. Pawlenty defended the past four years of his administration, saying he oversaw the largest financial turnaround in Minnesota history. He began his term with a $4.5 billion dollar, and the last revenue forecast projected a modest surplus.
Pawlenty says he made tough choices to balance the budget, and he charged Hatch with making spending promises without saying how he'll pay for them.
"You can't go around the state and promise billions and billions and billions of dollars in spending, way beyond any revenue source that he's identified, and not have that add up to a tax increase," Pawlenty said.
Hatch says he can finance his spending plans by more aggressively collecting taxes. He says the legislative auditor found that the state revenue department could collect another $1.5 billion a year from tax evaders. Pawlenty disputes that number.
While Hatch and Pawlenty took aim at each other, Peter Hutchinson of the Independence Party said both of them are evidence of "politics as usual." Hutchinson criticized Pawlenty's management of the state budget, saying the governor relied on accounting gimmicks and drained the state's tobacco endowments.
"And if Sarbanes-Oxley applied to government, Tim Pawlenty would be under indictment, and Mike Hatch would be under indictment for not indicting him," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson had the most one-liners of the debate. His style was somewhat reminiscent of former Independence Party governor Jesse Ventura, whose blunt talk in debates contributed to his surprise victory. Hutchinson sounded a little like Ventura when he responded to a question on the state's transportation system.
"Well, the team that I'm part of -- there are five of us running together - we just finished driving 6,800 miles around Minnesota, visiting 220 cities. We've been on the roads in Minnesota, and we can tell you... they suck," Hutchinson said.
Both Hutchinson and Hatch criticized Pawlenty's transportation plan that borrowed $1 billion to fund road construction. Hutchinson called the governor a "borrow-and-spend conservative."
Pawlenty didn't respond to Hutchinson's attack, only Hatch's. He says his DFL opponent has not proposed a way to reduce traffic congestion.
"You gotta have a plan," Pawlenty said. "You can't just be a critic. The attorney general has made very severe criticisms of our approach, but hasn't said anything about how he would fund a different approach."
Pawlenty and Hatch agree on one thing -- both are backing a measure on the November ballot asking voters to amend the state constitution to dedicate a sales tax on motor vehicles to roads and transit. The Chamber is pushing for the measure.
Only Hutchinson opposes it, saying there's no need to change the state Constitution. He says political leaders could dedicate the money on their own, but lack the courage to do so.
Another top issue for business leaders is rising health care costs. Hatch says health care is the reason he's running for governor, and he pledged to squeeze costs out of the state's health care system.
"First, instead of importing Canadian drugs, we should be importing the Canadian system of negotiating the price of the drugs," says Hatch. "Second, the biggest hemorrhage of the uninsured is from employers with less than 25 employees. We can stop the hemorrhage by permitting small employers who buy health coverage to buy a policy for high-risk employees from an assigned risk plan."
Hatch seemed less at ease than the other two, frequently relying on written notes when responding to questions submitted in advance. He's often touted his record as attorney general of taking on HMOs and big business, which may have prompted an audience question on whether any of the candidates is hostile to business. Hatch told the chamber audience that he's not anti-business.
"I was responsive to the companies I mentioned earlier that came in, be it a Marvin Windows or a Blandin or 3M, companies like that. My door is always open. We may not agree, but my door is always open. You always get a shot," Hatch said.
Hatch didn't address Hutchinson during the debate, and afterwards, said he considers the campaign a two-man race between him and Pawlenty. Pawlenty took a similar approach, directing his criticism at Hatch. He even praised Hutchinson's candor when talking about the budget.
"I think government should be able to live within its means and fund its priorities, like education and health care on double-digit revenue growth. Government shouldn't be growing two and three and four times faster than people's paychecks," says Pawlenty. "At least Peter Hutchinson's direct about it, he's saying, 'I'm going to raise taxes.' My other opponent goes around the state and promises everybody everything and won't say how he's going to pay for it."
That's not exactly what Hutchinson said. Hutchinson is the only one of the three to support a gas tax increase, but has not called for a general tax increase. Hutchinson also wants to increase the cigarette tax while lowering a state tax on doctors, hospitals and clinics.
Hutchinson has the most to gain from debates like this one; he has less name recognition, and will have less money to spend on advertising than the other two. Hutchinson is about to release his first ad, while Hatch and Pawlenty are out with their second television ads.
Hutchinson blasted Hatch and Pawlenty for not agreeing to participate in more than a dozen debates tentatively scheduled by seniors, sportsmen, educators and other groups.
"I think this is wrong, and I hope at some point, not only will you agree to do more of these, but that frankly, you'll apologize to those folks. They want us there, because they want to do a job interview," Hutchinson said.
The campaigns haven't agreed on a schedule for future debates, so it's possible this was the first and last debate of the general election campaign for governor.