Democrat Mark Dayton, Republican Tom Emmer and the Independence Party's Tom Horner took familiar swipes at each other on Sunday as the three candidates for governor met for their 26th and final debate before Minnesotans head to the polls.
The candidates had little to offer in terms of new details about their plans that might win over the remaining undecided voters. But it was clear that both Emmer and Horner, who have trailed in most polls conducted in the race, hoped to persuade some Dayton supporters to reconsider whether the former senator is right for the job.
Political observers said Dayton's lead in the polls don't indicate an easy victory.
"Polls are not predictions. They are snapshots in time," said Larry Jacobs, director of the Humphrey Institute's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, which released a poll Thursday showing Dayton ahead by 12 points.
"The race is tightening up," Jacobs said Sunday.
During the debate at the Fitzgerald Theater, hosted by Minnesota Public Radio and moderated by Midday host Gary Eichten, each of the candidates had a chance to ask questions of the other two.
Horner, who has trailed Dayton and Emmer, portrayed his opponents as at the extreme left and extreme right of the political spectrum. He asked each of them how they will represent all of Minnesota after receiving under 50 percent of the vote.
"I'm the one person who can bring Minnesota together," Horner said. "Vote your conscience."
Both Dayton and Emmer targeted most of their attacks on each other, but both criticized Horner's tax proposal, which would lower the sales tax but expand it to clothing and personal services.
Horner wouldn't say which personal services would be taxed, even after Dayton asked him for specifics. And Emmer questioned whether Horner would need to raise even more taxes than he's proposed to achieve the goals in education and other areas he's talked about improving.
In the last days before the election, Emmer has been trying to play up his proposals to create jobs by lowering taxes for businesses. During the debate, he again said Dayton's plan to tax the state's top earners would drive jobs away from Minnesota.
"It's going to kill the entrepreneurial spirit. That's what we've got to watch," Emmer said.
But Dayton didn't waver from the stance he's held throughout the campaign -- that those who have succeeded financially should expect to pay a higher tax rate than others.
"I believe in progressive income taxes," Dayton said.
Dayton also argued that raising taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans would allow state government to continue serving those in need.
"I'm not proposing expanded state government," he said, adding that 124,000 more people will be living in the state than before. "I just want to continue those essential services."
But Emmer said Minnesota should be able to operate with less money, continuing a common phrase used during his campaign and one frequently used by current Gov. Tim Pawlenty that "government should live within its means."
"That's what the public expects. They want you to provide the services within the money the government has," he said.
On education, Emmer sharply criticized the state teachers union Education Minnesota, saying it has gotten in the way of changes that would improve education. He referred to the union's president by name four times during the debate. The union has endorsed Dayton.
When asked if education would have enough money in the next two years to cover the added cost of increased enrollment and inflation, Emmer said, "yes, as long as you're willing to take on Tom Dooher, the union boss for Education Minnesota."
Dayton responded by arguing that Emmer's promise to hold education harmless from cuts isn't true, because per-pupil spending would drop with the increase in enrollment.
The candidates also spent part of the debate discussing health care, prompted by a member of the audience who asked whether they would go along with the federal health care reform law.
Emmer said Minnesota should try to prevent the law's provisions from being implemented.
"I think it's a mistake to believe that government can somehow make our health care decisions better than we can," he said.
Dayton dismissed Emmer's arguments and said there's been a lot of "fear-mongering" over health care reform. He defended some of the law's key provisions, saying too many Minnesotans currently "do not have any relationship with a doctor at all."
Horner, who said he and his wife will have to look for health care if he doesn't win the governor's race, agreed with Dayton that Minnesota should participate in the early opt-in for Medicaid expansion that the federal government is offering.
He also said the state has to be smarter about its own health insurance for its employees.
"The state is the largest purchaser of health care. We have yet to use that purchasing power to really figure out, how do we redesign health care," he said.
All three candidates plan to travel the state on Monday in an effort to reach as many voters as they can before Tuesday's election.