With just three weeks before Election Day, the three major-party candidates for governor are taking some harder shots at each other to try to sway voters.
Most of the candidates' views have been well established over a series of debates that now totals 18 since the August primary. The two-hour debate on MPR's Midmorning program gave them yet another opportunity to highlight their positions on taxes and state spending.
But the candidates also got a chance to plow into some fresher topics, such as professional experience.
WHO HAS THE RIGHT EXPERIENCE?
DFLer Dayton said his one term in in the U.S. Senate, along with time running state agencies, makes him well suited for the job of governor. Dayton made the point by comparing himself to Sully Sullenberger, the airline pilot who successfully ditched a commercial jet in the Hudson River back in 2009.
"I bet there was nobody in the passenger section praying, 'I hope this pilot's never flown one of these airplanes before.' He had skills and training in that particular plane to respond appropriately in that emergency situation," said Dayton. "I think the skills I have serving nine years in various executive branches, agencies of state government, is exactly the kind of experience and training necessary to lead the executive branch of Minnesota government."
The other candidates took issue with Dayton's experience, while highlighting their own. Republican Emmer, a state representative and lawyer, said he knows what it takes to run a small business and to meet a payroll. Emmer also questioned Dayton on the way he's used his extensive personal wealth.
"You haven't used that to create new jobs. You've used that to serve in public office, and I respect that," said Emmer. "But I think that there's different leadership needed now, people from the outside who know what it's like to be operating under it."
Emmer has spent 15 years in elected office, but he repeatedly paints himself as an outsider running against two government insiders. He said IP candidate Horner is an insider because of the government contracts won by his former public relations firm.
Horner said he, too, understands business, and he bristled at Emmer's suggestion that he, like Dayton, is a millionaire.
"When I started my business in 1989 I took a big risk. I had three kids under the age of 5. I understand what it takes," said Horner. "To suggest I make a million dollars a year -- absolutely false. Not true, have never earned a million dollars a year. Now, has my business been successful? Absolutely. Has Minnesota been a great state for me? Without question."
RESPONSE TO ATTACK ADS
The candidates also had a chance to respond to some of the attack ads being run against them by independent groups. Dayton, who was criticized in a Minnesota GOP-sponsored ad for closing his Senate office in reaction to a possible terrorist threat, said he stands by that decision.
Dayton acknowledged that his behavior at the time differed from his Senate colleagues, but said he has no regrets.
"If I had not done so, and something had happened to those young men and women, I would never have been able to forgive myself," Dayton said.
Emmer said an Alliance for a Better Minnesota-sponsored ad raising his past DUI arrests makes a false claim that he tried to soften drunken driving laws, even though some prosecutors opposed his legislative proposal.
Still, Emmer said he hoped the ad could be educational.
"It's not what we've done, it's what we've learned from what we've done. That is painful," said Emmer. "But it's 20 years ago. Hopefully my last 20 years have shown how I've tried to use that experience in my life. Let's hope that that ad helps somebody else not make that same mistake."
Horner said a radio ad claiming that he would continue the policies of GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty was false. As proof, he pointed to Pawlenty's recent warning to Republicans that they shouldn't vote for Horner.
HOW TO REFORM EDUCATION
All three candidates agreed on the need to improve public education. But they disagree on how the statewide teachers union Education Minnesota might help or hurt that effort.
Dayton has the union's endorsement, but he said he would go against its wishes if necessary to make needed school reforms. Emmer said he wants to increase the salaries of good teachers, but he blamed Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher by name for blocking changes in the current system.
"It's well known that this is the obstacle. It can no longer be about what Tom Dooher wants," said Emmer. "It has to be about what's in the best interest to the students, and the future of our education system."
Horner said he agreed with Emmer's assessment, but he said the problem is much broader than the union. Following the debate, Dooher issued a statement saying it's wrong to demonize Education Minnesota and its 70,000 members.
On the issue of video gambling in bars, Emmer and Horner said they would consider such an expansion. Dayton said he would not. Horner also said he would support adding slot machines at horse racing tracks, even though previous attempts to pass the so-called Racino proposal have failed in the Legislature.
"What I offer as governor is exactly relevant to this issue," said Horner, "and that is the ability to go out and engage the 60 to 70 percent of Minnesotans that have been pushed to the sidelines -- in a way that frankly, I think Sen. Dayton or Rep. Emmer can't do."
HOW TO BALANCE THE STATE'S BUDGET
Much of the discussion returned to the budget and tax issues that have dominated the campaign. Horner boasted that his tax plan, which would include a sales tax on clothing, had received a stamp of approval from former Federal Reserve economist Art Rolnick.
Emmer offered another vigorous defense of his view that the projected $5.8 billion budget deficit is a matter of spending run amok. He also said he's the only candidate with a complete budget plan.
Dayton said that Emmer's proposal to keep K-12 spending at current levels would result in local property tax increases. He later tried to clarify that his education spending proposals were goals rather than promises.
"These are my priorities, yes. To increase our investment in education, starting with early childhood, optional all-day kindergarten and K-12 so we can lower class sizes, prevent more school districts going to four-day school weeks," said Dayton. "If and when the money becomes available through economic growth and more people working and paying taxes, then my first priority will be to spend those additional dollars in areas of education."
Dayton, Emmer and Horner are scheduled to face off again Friday during a debate at the University of Minnesota.