The war in Iraq has been the dominant campaign issue in this year's U.S. Senate race and the final debate continued that discussion. The MPR-sponsored debate showcased the candidates differences on the best way to approach the war. In fact, there's disagreement on the best way to define the situation in that country.
Democrat Amy Klobuchar says the escalating violence has evolved into a civil war. She says she'd like to withdraw some U.S. troops from the country and begin pushing the Iraqi-led government to become more independent.
"I believe we have to be a lot smarter in how we provide help to the country of Iraq and that's going to help this government," she said. "As well as this idea that we cannot have this culture of dependency and we need to start transitioning to Iraqi authority and we need to help this country diplomatically and politically and there have not been enough efforts in that regard."
The Independence Party's Robert Fitzgerald agrees with Klobuchar that the situation has evolved into a civil war, but took Klobuchar and Kennedy to task for failing to call for an immediate troop withdrawal. Fitzgerald, who at times interrupted his opponents and the moderator, seemed frustrated that Klobuchar and Kennedy are not taking stronger political stances on the war.
"We have not had a visceral response to this war in Iraq yet. Three-thousand dead U.S. servicemen and women. We had over 100 killed just last month. How much longer are we going to chew them up and spit them out?" he asked.
Mark Kennedy, who voted for the war in Iraq in Congress, disagrees with Fitzgerald and Klobuchar's characterization that the country has fallen into a civil war. Kennedy says the violence is being created by Iraqi-based militias that are being financially backed by Iran and Al Qaeda. Kennedy does not support an immediate troop withdrawal and says the troops can't leave until the terrorists are defeated. He criticized Klobuchar for calling for a diplomatic and political solution.
"When you're dealing with Al Qaeda and Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups. How is diplomacy the solution? How do you Al Qaeda and groups that would just as soon kill you as look at you?" Kennedy asked.
Kennedy's comments prompted Klobuchar to say Kennedy can't be a part of the solution if he can't admit there's a problem.
The candidates also made their final case to the voters. Klobuchar told the audience that she's the best candidate to bring change to Washington. She said Congress needed a new approach on everything from the war in Iraq to prescription drug costs to energy independence. She stuck to a now familiar campaign centerpiece that says Congress and President Bush has lost its way.
"They need a compass. They need a moral compass. But the only problem is the only compass they've got is the congressional compass and it only points in one direction and that's toward "w" as in George W. I can tell you that when I'm your senator, I won't be following the Lone Star, I'll be following the North Star," Klobuchar said.
Klobuchar has been leading in every independent poll in this race. The most recent Star Tribune poll has Klobuchar ahead of Kennedy by 20 percentage points. Kennedy continued his criticism of Klobuchar, the Hennepin County attorney. He blamed her for the increased violence in Minneapolis and for criticizing drug companies while having mutual fund holdings of those companies. Kennedy said Klobuchar is trying to do the politically popular thing while he's being straight forward with voters.
"Leadership is not following any star," Kennedy said. "Leadership is facing honestly the tough challenges that we face whether they're popular or not."
Fitzgerald was more animated and fiery than he's been in previous debates. He interrupted his opponents and the moderator at several points in the debate. He also said he supports the legalization of marijuana and wants Congress to balance the budget. Fitzgerald said Klobuchar and Kennedy were unable to bring any true change to Washington since they're both tied to special interest money.
"Special interest and lobbying is a $2 billion industry in Washington D.C. To think that either of these two are going to be anything other than roadblocks to actual meaningful reform to health care is absurd," he said.
The three candidates will spend the next two days rallying their supporters and encouraging them to vote. Kennedy is scheduled to attend a Monday morning rally with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in St. Louis Park and will make several stops in southern Minnesota. Klobuchar will spend the day mostly in northern Minnesota.