The candidates have followed a consistent pattern in their three-way debates. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his DFL opponent Mike Hatch take aim at each other's positions, while largely ignoring Peter Hutchinson of the Independence Party. Hatch fired an early volley on the subject of stem cell research. Hatch claims Minnesota has fallen behind other states because of opposition from some conservatives.
"Here we are caught by a narrow group of ideologues who are basically preventing this state, holding this Legislature and this governor hostage by not getting into the big initiatives that other states have done with regard to stem cell technology," according to Hatch.
Hutchinson warned that the state research commitments already made aren't sustainable. He's proposing the creation of an endowment at the University of Minnesota to support a broad range of research.
Gov. Pawlenty tried to defuse the issue by stating his support of stem cell research, even the controversial practice of using cells derived from embryos.
"I know Mr. Hatch wants to make stem cells an issue, but I'm going to disappoint him, because we agree on the issue. I support stem cell research. I believe President Bush and Congress should further in allowing stem cell research," Pawlenty said.
Health care is big business in Rochester, and all three candidates pushed the issue hard. Pawlenty wants consumers, not government, driving the changes needed in the health care system. Hatch wants to move toward universal health care coverage. Hutchinson has a plan to reduce the cost of health care in Minnesota. And he doesn't think his opponents are offering much to voters on the issue.
"So that was the job interview. You just said what the biggest problem was: health care. Would you hire someone that wouldn't tell you where they're going to get to or how they're going to get there?" Hutchinson asked.
A big issue for many Rochester-area voters this year is the proposed expansion of the DM&E Railroad. The prospect of trains hauling coal cars and tankers through the city has many people up in arms. All three candidates share those concerns. Pawlenty says the project shouldn't go forward until all the issues are addressed.
"But the real answer here is to get a solution, get both sides, the federal government, state government, DM&E, Rochester Boosters, to find a solution that everybody can sign off on," he said.
The governor stood behind a no-tax-increase pledge his first term. He's been trying to paint Hatch as a tax raiser and big spender. One of his campaign ads features an accountant who adds up the costs of Hatch's proposals, an accounting Hatch disputes.
Hatch points to the growth of state government under Pawlenty. He also accuses the governor of solving the state budget deficit with big cuts to cities and colleges.
"That's what we did. If you add it up it's over $10 billion over the four-year period. That's what it is if you use the Republican part accountant for that little number," he said.
The Pawlenty and Hatch strategy of ignoring Hutchinson has one key weakness: the Independence Party candidate refuses to be ignored. He also has a knack of charming debate audiences with his observations of the frontrunners.
"This guy's running an ad that tells you this guy's going to spend a gazillion bucks. And I'll bet you a million bucks this guy's preparing an an ad that says this guy makes promises he can't keep. Both are true," he said to a room of laughter.
The three candidates aren't scheduled to meet again until October 29.