Candidates for the U.S. House seat in Minnesota's 6th District debated for the first time Tuesday, in what is likely the most expensive congressional campaign in the country.
The candidates -- U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican, DFLer Tarryl Clark and Independence Party candidate Bob Anderson -- frequently sparred with each other in their first face-tp-face meeting.
They debated in front of a crowd of about 500 people at the St. Cloud Civic Center. The audience appeared stacked with Tarryl Clark supporters, who cheered loudly when she was introduced.
Bachmann's first remarks focused on the economy.
"It's been increasingly clear that the issue comes down to three issues. Number one, it's jobs. Number two, it's more jobs. And number three, it's been even more and better jobs," said Bachmann. "That's what people are worried about -- what's going to happen in their job going forward."
Clark seized upon that statement, going on the attack in her own opening remarks.
"Our congresswoman just said that jobs are the most important thing," Clark responded. "But by your own admission, you've said you have done nothing to pass a substantial piece of legislation that would do anything for the people of this district."
Bachmann was given the chance to reply to Clark's comments but asked simply to move on.
The candidates also tangled over the federal deficit. Bachmann called it a defining issue of the past two years, and blamed both the current and previous administrations for it.
"In the last year of George W. Bush's presidency we lived in excess of $400 billion in debt. I agreed with candidate Obama when he said he wanted to reduce the deficit in 2008, because George Bush frankly spent way too much money," said Bachmann. "Were we in a mess? Yes, but when you're in a hole you don't dig it down even further."
Clark fired back again, saying Bachmann has missed opportunities to bring down the deficit.
"You voted against 'Pay as you go,' which is kind of an odd thing for someone who says they're a fiscal conservative," Clark said.
Bachmann got feistier when she talked about the federal stimulus package, which she opposed. She disparaged Clark's support of the stimulus.
"My opponent has been continuing to defend the trillion-dollar stimulus program. The stimulus has been an abject failure," she said, saying some of the stimulus money has been used to study things like the effects of cocaine on monkeys.
Clark criticized Bachmann for opposing the stimulus bill, while at the same time asking for stimulus money for projects in the district.
"Ironically, while you've been attacking me for it, you sent in six letters saying we want [stimulus] money because it's going to create thousands of jobs in our district. You can't have it both ways," said Clark.
IP candidate Bob Anderson said he thought the stimulus package was a "bloated bill." But he added he would've supported it had it focused more on transportation funding.
Anderson went on to join Bachmann in criticizing Clark for not stating a clear position on what's called card check legislation, which would make it easier for unions to organize workers.
"You'd better get that clarified before you get any more union endorsements," said Anderson.
The remark drew some applause, and Clark declined to say whether she would vote for the measure, saying she is "beholden to no one." Bachmann didn't take that as an answer.
"My opponent had two chances to answer that question, and we still haven't gotten a straight answer from her. My answer remains the same. I will vote no," said Bachmann.
Towards the end of the debate, the candidates talked about the abundance of negative ads in the race. Bachmann and Clark have pulled in a combined $15 million in fundraising, and they've used much of that money on attack ads.
Bob Anderson, who says he raised less than $7,000 in the third quarter, scolded his opponents for their fundraising excesses.
"You should both be ashamed of yourselves," said Anderson. "When we're talking about all the fiscal problems ... and you're spending $15 million between the two of you on these stupid attack ads that people are sick and tired of, we should get back to some common sense in politics. At least I offer that in this race."
That comment once again drew the "forbidden applause."
The candidates will debate two more times before Election Day.