The crowd stole the show Tuesday at a raucous 8th District Congressional Debate in Duluth.
A boisterous and partisan crowd interrupted, cheered and jeered both Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat and his Republican Challenger Chip Cravaack.
More than 1,500 people packed the auditorium of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center for the debate, co-sponsored by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, St. Luke's Hospital and the Duluth News Tribune.
Cravaack, 51, is a retired naval officer and political newcomer. His Campaign stickers adorned hundreds of supporters. Oberstar, 76,has represented the district in Congress for 18 terms. Many of his backers, including steelworkers from the Iron Range, wore union jackets.
Moderators repeatedly struggled to control the crowd, such as when Oberstar talked about his support for spending in the federal stimulus bill.
"We are emerging from the worst recession since the Great Depression -- a colossal mountain of debt created by the previous administration," Oberstar said.
Mid-sentence, that brought groans from many in the audience.
"I gather they don't like to hear the truth," Oberstar said.
Cravaack challenged Oberstar's support for the stimulus package.
"The United States government does not create jobs," he said. "It is the business owners."
Cravaack said the federal government should eliminate regulations that impede small business job creation.
The candidates also traded barbs over environmental bills, tax cuts and the federal health care overhaul designed to provide health insurance to an estimated 32 million uninsured Americans. Oberstar is a strong advocate of the program to expand health coverage.
"My father and the steel-workers went on strike to win this from the steel industry, to have insurance, participated in by the company and by the workers and a retirement plan," Oberstar said.
But Cravaack derided the legislation as "Obama-care" and called it a job killer.
"It's going to put a very large cost increase on our employers," he said of the health care bill.
Cravaack lives in Lindstrom, in the southern part of the 8th District, an area that politically tends to lean right. Oberstar is from Chisholm on the traditionally DFL Iron Range.
Oberstar's backers packed the left side of the auditorium, Cravaack's the right. Organizers were surprised at the outpouring of interest in the event and had to move it twice to larger venues. The original location seats only 75, but it was eventually moved to the convention center auditorium, which seats more than 2,000.*
In the audience, many complained they couldn't hear. Despite repeated calls for civility, crowd members repeatedly shouted in disagreement.
Dr. Linda Krug, an associate professor of communications at the University of Minnesota Duluth, arrived early and was surprised at the huge turnout.
Then she listened to the crowd's cheers and jeers as each candidate was introduced.
"I heard that and I thought, 'oh my, I think the vote could be a lot closer than people think,' " Krug said.
Krug said 60 percent of the crowd appeared to support Cravaack, and his campaign's organizing was obvious. Sign-carrying Cravaack supporters manned the approaches handing out blue stickers to every taker. She expects a very tight race.
"I've been here for 25 years and this is Oberstar country," she said. "It feels like he really has a challenger."
The two candidates will meet in a final debate Friday at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids.