It's the last full week of campaigning before the Aug. 10 primary, and Sunday night the DFL candidates for governor took part in the last televised debate before voters cast their ballots. Two more debates remain.
A recent poll shows the race among Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Mark Dayton and Matt Entenza is still up for grabs, and the candidates are hoping these final debates will make the difference for their campaigns.
At the start of the debate, sponsored by KSTP-TV and the League of Women Voters, the candidates were asked how they would handle the most pressing issue facing the next governor -- a projected budget deficit of $5.8 billion. All three say they intend to fix part of it by raising income taxes on Minnesota's top earners.
Mark Dayton again sounded the most aggressive on that issue -- promoting a new income tax bracket on couples making more than $150,000 a year. He said the candidates who don't support it should identify which government programs they want to cut.
"For every dollar of revenue you don't raise by making the richest Minnesotans pay their fair share of taxes, you have to cut a dollar of real spending that's going to have a harsh effect on someone's life," said Dayton.
But Margaret Anderson Kelliher said Dayton's plan goes too far. She and Matt Entenza both want to hike income taxes on wealthier couples -- those making more than $250,000 a year.
"We can't go from being the 'no new taxes' state to the 'all new taxes' state, so the balance has to come that those who are doing well are paying their fair share," Kelliher.
For his part, Entenza focused a lot of his time on his top two campaign priorities -- creating jobs from investments in renewable energy, and opting out of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
"We need strong action. We need to scrap No Child Left Behind. It has been a disaster," said Entenza. "It is costing the state more money than we get in the federal money than we might lose."
Kelliher countered that the state should not turn down federal money during tough budget times.
Among the three, Kelliher was the most aggressive candidate in the debate.
She challenged Dayton on his time in political office.
"You served one term as state auditor and then you stopped. You served one term as U.S. senator and then you stopped. And you also graded yourself with an 'F,'" said Kelliher said to Dayton. "The times ahead of us are going to be very hard right now. How are Minnesotans going to know that you're going to stay and fight and be able to complete the job?"
"I promised the people of Minnesota that with their support, I will serve two terms as governor," Dayton responded. "And I will continue the career that I have devoted almost all of my adult life -- to serving the people of this state. I'm a hard grader, of myself and the people around me. I gave the entire Senate an F in 2006 because I thought that they have failed the people of this state and country."
Dayton has led his DFL opponents in various independent polls. Kelliher is the DFL-endorsed candidate, and is relying on the support of the party and several labor unions to help win the primary, but she's being outspent several times over.
Entenza and Dayton have both tapped their personal wealth to fund their campaigns -- a combined $7.3 million to date. Kelliher tried to use the issue against Entenza, asking him why he's the only DFL candidate to refuse to disclose his tax returns or his family income. Entenza's wife made millions working for health insurer, UnitedHealth Group.
Entenza countered that Kelliher failed to act on campaign finance reform during her time as speaker of the Minnesota House.
"I find it more than ironic to see you engage in a sort of partisan bickering back and forth, while as speaker, you failed to pass a single bill to substantially move that forward," said Entenza. "If you would have done that, obviously we would have all liked to see that. And as governor, I look forward to signing a bill to do that. But in the meantime, people want to know our ideas that are positive, rather than see people poke fingers at one another."
"I'm proud that I have 3,500 contributors to this campaign," Kelliher countered. "Matt, the kind of campaign you've run is Astroturf, the kind that you buy. We have a real grassroots campaign here, and it's been disappointing to me that you don't support the things that you claim to support."
On Wednesday, the three DFLers will take the stage with Republican Tom Emmer and Independence Party candidates Tom Horner and Rob Hahn at FarmFest in Redwood Falls. The final DFL debate before the Aug. 10 primary will be on Sunday night in St. Paul.