DFLer Ashwin Madia, Republican Erik Paulsen and Independence Party candidate David Dillon are all trying to win over the same undecided voters in this final week of the campaign. And, the debate highlighted the candidates' similarities as much as their differences.
Minnesota Public Radio's Gary Eichten was the moderator.
Eichten asked if the candidates would make any changes in existing gun laws.
"No," Dillon replied.
"Nope," Paulsen said. "I supported the Supreme Court ruling that came out recently."
Madia also said he would not make any changes.
The candidates all have similar prescriptions for weaning the U.S. off foreign oil, some combination of renewable energy incentives and increased domestic oil exploration. They all oppose the idea of the government mailing out a second round of "economic stimulus" checks and they all agree that the economy is the number one issue on voters' minds right now.
But, when it comes to fixing the economy, the differences between the candidates become clear. In this debate, as in previous debates, Paulsen hammered Madia on his tax proposal.
"To think of putting a $2,600 tax increase on my constituents, per person, it's not per family, it's per person," Paulsen said. "That is a mistake."
"Erik, you keep saying that $2,600 per family. It's not true and you know it," Madia shot back.
Madia wants to eliminate the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts for families making more than $250,000 per year. He has promised not to increase taxes on anyone below that level. Paulsen wants to make all the Bush tax cuts permanent, and Dillon wants to keeps some of them and repeal some others. But what he really wants to do is overhaul and simplify the whole federal tax code.
All three call themselves fiscal conservatives. Paulsen wants to reduce agriculture subsidies and also wants to amend the U.S. Constitution to require balanced budgets and give the president a line item veto. But, he doesn't support the rule called "pay as you go."
"Pay as you go is also another word for tax increase," Paulsen said.
Madia does support pay as you go, something that would require Congress to offset any new spending or tax cuts with other spending cuts or tax increases.
"The problem I've got with a lot of Democrats is they say, 'OK. You can balance the budget,'" Madia said. "The only way you can do that is increase taxes. You can't cut spending. The problems I have with Republicans is saying 'You can cut spending, but you can't increase taxes.' Look, The answer is somewhere in between."
When it comes to cutting spending, Madia would require competitive bidding for all military contracts. He also argues the government could save a lot of money by ending the Iraq war and allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs.
Dillon, the Independence Party candidate, wants to reduce the budget for the U.S. military.
"We spend $711 billion on military spending every year," Dillon said. "So, just imagine the Wall Street bailout for $700 billion and doing it every year."
All three candidates tried to portray themselves as the rightful heir to the man whose seat they are seeking, retiring Republican Congressman Jim Ramstad.
That prompted Gary Eichten to ask if there were any areas where the candidates disagreed with Ramstad.
"I can't think of anything off hand," Paulsen said.
Paulsen used to work for Ramstad, and Ramstad has endorsed him. But Madia was happy to remind him that there are some issues where Paulsen's mentor takes a more liberal position than Paulsen does.
"Representative Ramstad and I both are in favor of stem cell research," Madia said. "Erik's against it. I think Ramstad and I are both pro-choice, and I think Erik is against that as well."
For his part, David Dillon said his biggest disagreement with Ramstad was on Ramstad's decision to retire.
"I met him a number of months ago and we talked about it a little bit," Dillon said. "And I said, 'You know, if you'd stay I wouldn't have to run. And his response was that 'the last of us moderates in Congress can caucus in a phone booth.'"
Ramstad's retirement sparked off one of the most competitive congressional races in the country. A recent poll had Madia leading Paulsen, but within the margin of error. Dillon was running in the single digits. National parties and outside groups have been spending big money in the district.
All told, the candidates, the parties and other outside groups have spent nearly $8 million on TV ads in the race.