The lively debate underlined just how competitive the race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad has become.
The first question at the Jewish Community Relations Council debate was about Iran. Republican Erik Paulsen wasted no time in reminding the audience at Minnetonka's Bet Shalom synagogue what his Democratic opponent Ashwin Madia has said about that country.
"Mr. Madia at one time said Iran is not a threat. I'll say it again. At one time, Ashwin Madia said Iran is not a threat," Paulsen said.
And Paulsen disagrees.
"It's a threat not only to Israel. It's a threat to the United States, and it's probably the most important threat that faces the entire globe as we look at the possibility of them getting nuclear weapons in the near future."
But Madia, a military veteran who served in Iraq, stands by his statement.
"Look, as a Marine, when someone says 'threat' that means you attack. I'm not there yet. I don't think that it's time to attack Iran," Madia said.
Madia does not rule out the possibility of military action against Iran, but only as a last resort. He wants to try diplomacy, economic sanctions, even a blockade, first. But Madia says the U.S. should "defer to Israel," should it decide to take action against Iran.
Independence Party candidate David Dillon also favors using economic pressure.
"One of the things that I would ask you to do is everyone of you to ask the state of Minnesota, or whoever it is that runs your pension plan or your 401k, to divest Iran," Dillon said.
Many Americans are thinking about their retirement funds these days, thanks to the trouble on Wall Street, and the candidates offered their views on the $700 billion government bailout under consideration on Capitol Hill.
All three candidates expressed exasperation with America's financial giants for their role in the mortgage crisis. But Dillon and Madia begrudgingly support the bailout plan. Paulsen, the Republican candidate, isn't so sure.
"Right now, knowing what I know of the package coming forward, I don't think I would be supporting it, because taxpayers are going to be on the hook for potentially up to $7,000 per taxpayer. That's just too much," said Paulsen.
The Wall Street crisis surfaced again when the candidates sparred over the budget. Madia says the U.S. has to stop running such big deficits and borrowing money to cover the difference.
"We are essentially running our country like Lehman Brothers made their company, which is that we are leveraging everything in this country," said Madia. "We've had politicians for the past several years who would come and tell you this: I'll give you health care. I'll give you education. I'll fight Afghanistan for you. I'll fight Iraq for you. I'll fight terrorism for everyone. I'll give you all health care, and you know what? I'll cut all your taxes at the exact same time."
Madia accused Paulsen of being fiscally irresponsible, because Paulsen wants to extend all the Bush tax cuts set to expire after next year.
Madia's plan would extend the tax cuts for most people, but roll them back for the top 2 percent of income earners, basically families making more than $250,000 a year.
Paulsen pounced on that.
"Mr. Madia can't have it both ways. You can't say you're against a $2.3 trillion tax cut and then say you're for 98 percent of it," said Paulsen. "That doesn't make any sense. What's 98 percent of $2.3 trillion?"
All three call themselves fiscal conservatives.
Dillon, the Independence Party candidate, has pledged to resign if he ever votes for a budget that's not balanced. Neither Paulsen nor Madia would take that pledge.
Paulsen is the only one of the three candidates who has run for office before. He is the former Republican majority leader of Minnesota House. And that means he has a long voting record for his opponents to criticize.
Madia used that record to portray Paulsen as to the right of retiring Rep. Ramstad, who has a moderate record on social issues.
"I want a clear answer to the question on whether Erik voted to fund the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, and I'd also like to know the context of the amendment to our state's constitution about gay marriage," Madia said.
And Dillon piled on.
"Erik has come out of the right wing of the Republican Party, and it's part of why I'm not a Republican anymore," Dillon said.
Paulsen has acknowledged he is more conservative than Ramstad, but he said social issues where never his top priority in the Legislature.
"I've been successful because I don't focus on those types of issues," said Paulsen. "I focus on what matters to people, but I'm not going to run away and not vote on how I might believe on an issue. I'm going to stand up and be counted and be principled. Maybe you're hearing from the others that they won't."
Both Dillon and Madia said if they're elected, they won't focus on social issues, either.