In a college auditorium packed with partisans, the three candidates debated what's happened under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and what should happen under the next governor.
DFLer Mike Hatch blamed Pawlenty for rising property taxes and college tuition costs, and a backlog of delayed highway projects. Pawlenty responded with a list of accomplishments, from the state's low unemployment rate to an infusion of money into road construction.
"With respect to my opponents, they have a hard job to do. They have to go out and convince you that everything stinks, and it doesn't in Minnesota. Minnesota is a great state, and we're doing pretty well. And we have more to do," he said.
Pawlenty called his opponents the "Hatchinson brothers" who want to tear down his record. He says if reelected, he'll focus on reforming Minnesota schools, trimming health care costs and improving the state's transportation system.
Pawlenty's opponents say the governor has fallen down on the job when it comes to transportation. Both Mike Hatch and Peter Hutchinson disagree with Pawlenty's approach of borrowing money to pay for road construction. Hatch says the governor focused on metro roads to the detriment of rural Minnesota, where most traffic deaths and injuries take place.
"You divide this state when you take a metrocentric approach to what we do as a state," he said. "And I can guarantee you people in rural Minnesota, greater Minnesota, resent the idea that everything becomes focused on the metropolitan area."
Unlike a previous debate, when Hatch often relied on his notes and appeared to be reading, the DFL candidate appeared ready to take on Pawlenty with fresh attacks.
Pawlenty countered by saying Hatch is quick to criticize him without offering a transportation plan of his own. The Independence Party's Peter Hutchinson said neither of them answered the question about how to pay for transportation.
"Mike Hatch wants to admire the problem, but I didn't hear what he's going to do. And I think Tim Pawlenty spent his whole time telling us that Mike Hatch didn't answer the question in order to not answer the question. The question is: what's the future. You can't duck the question," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson is the only one of the three calling for a gas tax increase to pay for transportation. He says he would have signed a 10-cent-a-gallon increase that Pawlenty vetoed. Hutchinson called the plan to rebuild the crosstown interchange in south Minneapolis the most bungled project in the history of the state, and said Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau should be fired over it.
Pawlenty says the Crosstown project will be postponed by a year because of a delay in federal funding, but will begin next spring. And he defended his transportation bonding plan, saying most states borrow for some construction projects.
"We bond for things that last a couple of decades, and we pay for them," he said. "And when you can avoid 12 percent a year construction costs with 5 percent money, it's a good deal. And one of the ways we're paying for the current projects is we squeeze MnDOT, and it needed to be squeezed. It was a lethargic agency."
Pawlenty is backing a measure on the November ballot that would dedicate motor vehicle sales tax revenues to road construction and transit. He says that will increase transportation funding. Hatch also supports the measure, although he doesn't like the way the proposal is worded on the ballot. He says some rural voters are concerned that most of the money will be funneled into metro transit projects.
Hutchinson is the only one of the three who opposes it, saying there's no need to amend the state constitution when state leaders already have the ability to set aside the money.
The three do agree that higher education should be more affordable. Pawlenty says college tuition went up too much after the 2003 budget cuts, when the governor insisted on closing a multi-billion dollar budget gap without raising taxes. But the governor says tuition hikes are more reasonable now. He's proposing two free years of college tuition for Minnesota high school students who graduate at the top of their class.
Hutchinson wants to increase funding for student financial aid by $150 million a year. And Hatch has made tuition one of the cornerstones of his campaign, saying too many Minnesota high school graduates can't afford to go to college.
"I want our children to go to these colleges, I want the tuition down. I've told you how I'm going to take it, I'm going to close that loophole on foreign investments. I'm going to take every dollar of it, we're going to apply it to tuition relief. It is absolutely immoral that we taxed our children to balance the budget. It should never have happened," he said.
Pawlenty has blasted Hatch's plan to eliminate a corporate tax break as a tax increase. The governor also says while Hatch criticizes his budget cuts, Hatch said he would have supported former governor Jesse Ventura's budget in 2002, which also contained cuts to higher education. Pawlenty challenged Hatch to outline how he'll pay for his other spending promises.
Hutchinson says while his two opponents spar over the budget, he's the only one who has outlined a comprehensive plan to cut health care costs and direct the savings to education and environmental programs.
"We've got to get back to real fiscal responsibility. Real fiscal responsibility. In fact, it feels to me like I'm the only real fiscal conservative sitting up here. My stuff is all accounted for, the money's all on the table, and it adds up. You may not like it, but it's all there."
Hutchinson again challenged his opponents to agree to more debates, or job interviews, as he calls them, before the election. Pawlenty and Hatch have agreed to another four debates, but Hutchinson says that's not enough. With polls showing many voters don't know who he is, more debates offer Hutchinson a free way to improve his name recognition. But while Pawlenty and Hatch are two of the state's best known politicians, neither one has a clear lead in the race. The candidates are well aware of their neck-and-neck standing in the polls, which may explain why Pawlenty - a popular incumbent - feels the need to go on the offensive against Hatch's campaign promises, and why Hatch continues to pound away at Pawlenty's record.
As they do so, they run the risk of alienating undecided voters like Eva Young of Minneapolis, who said Hutchinson won the debate in her mind because he answered the questions...
"I thought Hutchinson made more sense on the transportation issue, and he was more honest about it. If you're going to do this, you should do it by a gas tax rather than by MVST and hoping it's going to pass," she said.
MVST is the nickname for the proposed transportation funding amendment. Young says she didn't like the way Hatch kept talking about rural Minnesota to a Minneapolis audience, and she's upset with Pawlenty over his support for a new Twins stadium.
But undecided voters were clearly the minority at the U of M debate. Many audience members wore red "Pawlenty for governor" T-shirts, or buttons supporting Hatch or Hutchinson's Team Minnesota. The debate was interrupted twice by audience members yelling at the candidates, until being escorted out by security. It was sponsored by Debate Minnesota, a group holding more than a dozen debates in several races across the state, and the University of Minnesota's Department of Communication Studies. The candidates for governor will debate again next week in Rochester.