The feisty campaign for Minnesota's 1st District went on full display Monday night as the three candidates discussed everything from health care reform to the federal budget deficit and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Democrat incumbent Tim Walz, Republican Randy Demmer and Independence Party candidate Steve Wilson took part in the debate at Minnesota State University Mankato. Several hundred residents attended the event, which was sponsored by the Debate Minnesota Foundation.
During much of the night, Walz and Demmer criticized each other's positions on key issues. At one point, Demmer denounced the incumbent's vote on the federal health care overhaul.
"I do not support this health care program. I do not support what was passed in Washington," Demmer said. "I have to contrast with the congressman in terms of whether there was real listening going in terms of what people wanted to hear [and] what they wanted to see."
Demmer said that what people were saying is they wanted to see change and they wanted to have control over their health care.
Walz responded by saying Congress had to take decisive action and the bill was a good compromise between both political parties.
"That's the thing that's missing in this country. It's compromise, compromise, compromise," Walz said. "Yet, I see a poll that says most people see that as a weakness. If you want to build a caucus that share [beliefs] exactly like you, you're going to find yourself alone at some point. This nation has to come together to get those things."
Walz and Demmer are running in a district that stretches across southern Minnesota, from South Dakota to Wisconsin.
The district has been getting plenty of attention from Republicans in the past week. They say they see big opportunities in the 1st District, which has traditionally leaned toward the GOP. They're hoping Demmer (R-Hayfield) will be able to pick off Walz, who's vying for his third term.
Demmer is receiving support from fellow Republicans, including 2nd District Congressman John Kline, who campaigned for him on Monday. And last week, Demmer released his first TV ad, with the financial backing of the National Republican Congressional Committee. The ad attacks Walz for supporting health care reform, cap and trade energy legislation, and the stimulus bill.
But Demmer's first commercial came almost a month after Walz started his ads, so he's got some catching up to do.
Demmer and Walz are at odds over how much responsibility Democrats should take for the $1.2 trillion deficit. At the debate, Demmer chastised Walz for supporting the $800 billion economic stimulus package.
"The massive buildup in debt that we've seen at astronomically historical levels, is quite frankly one of the most ominous things that's happened to this country since it's founding," Demmer said. "Congressman, you guys had no idea how this was going to work, it's totally irresponsible."
Walz did not deny Congress faces challenges, but he stood by his decision.
"The debt didn't start on January 21, 2009," Walz said. "A $3 trillion war; Medicare Part D $800 billion unpaid for, passed in the middle of the night after being left open three hours; tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans that did not create a job, but ballooned the debt and the deficit. We faced an economic crisis not seen since the Great Depression."
Independence Party candidate Steve Wilson told the crowd the bickering between the two main party candidates is why he's the best candidate to get things done.
"Both parties deserve to take responsibility because both of them had a stake in that," Wilson said. "This is something that's been going on for 20 years; we've become addicted to debt as a nation. We're all responsible."
Some national political observers say the race in the 1st District appears to be tightening, although they still say Walz appears to be in the lead. Walz has received endorsements from former Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger as well as the National Rifle Association.