(AP) They smiled for the cameras while they picked at each other.
So went a half-hour taping for a community television debate Monday, where Republican Michele Bachmann and Democrat Patty Wetterling sat separated by the buffer of Independence Party candidate John Binkowski.
The nasty tone carried over from the negative TV ads both Wetterling and Bachmann have been running. It's an increasingly bitter campaign for an open seat in Congress - one that could weigh into the power balance in Washington.
During the taping, Bachmann and Wetterling disagreed most sharply on taxes and campaign commercials. Bachmann recently started running a TV ad that focuses on Wetterling's integrity, while Wetterling defended a commercial that attacks Bachmann on taxes.
Bachmann said Wetterling is "absolutely flat-out wrong" in an ad that says Bachmann supports a 23 percent national sales tax. After the debate, she criticized another Wetterling ad that says members of Congress covered up the Mark Foley scandal.
"She has a real problem with truthfulness," Bachmann said.
Wetterling didn't respond directly during the North Metro TV debate, which is likely to air frequently in Minnesota's 6th District until the Nov. 7 election. The district curves around the northern suburban half of the Twin Cities and reaches west past St. Cloud.
After the taping, Wetterling said Bachmann wants to downplay past support for a flat tax. Even though she's faced criticism for her portrayal of Bachmann's position, she stood by her ad.
"I can't explain her tax plan in a 30-second ad," Wetterling said. "I can point out that she's advocated for the flat tax for a very long time. And I think that people should know what she said."
Wetterling also tried to make an issue of health insurance for campaign workers.
"I'm the only one up here who provides health care for my employees," she said.
Wetterling said she offers health insurance to all her full-time campaign workers, about 14 people.
Bachmann said her campaign doesn't provide health insurance because it's a short-term organization. Binkowski said he has only one campaign employee who was already insured through his spouse.
Binkowski, with little money and no TV ads, tried to find a different tone.
"The real choice up here is not red or blue - it's whether we all want to be Americans again," he said.