A standing room crowd jammed into the student union building to hear the three candidates. Democratic front-runner Amy Klobuchar and Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy spent most of the evening ignoring Independence Party candidate Robert Fitzgerald.
One of the topics chosen by organizers for the debate was the war in Iraq. The candidates were given three choices: did they support pulling troops out of Iraq immediately, gradually withdrawing troops or staying the course.
Fitzgerald favored pulling U.S. troops out immediately, Klobuchar said a gradual withdraw is the best policy. Kennedy said he favors staying the course.
The disagreement set the tone for the rest of the evening.
All three spent the night arguing, even after one spectator asked them what they liked about each other. The question gave Fitzgerald a chance to step into the spotlight.
"I've had just a great opportunity to meet both Amy Klobuchar and Mark Kennedy and in our dealings it has been just absolutely wonderful," he said. "I believe them to be very good people, and our friends here from college -- I think they'll understand what I'm about to say here next. They're great to be around individually, but when you get on stage with them it's kind of like be caught in the middle."
The most recent MPR - St. Paul Pioneer Press Poll shows Fitzgerald is a distant third in the Senate race. It showed Klobuchar ahead of Kennedy by 15 percentage points.
Despite a wide range of opinions on a number of topics, the candidates did agree on one thing:Minnesota's roads are in bad shape.
Kennedy said as a member of the House Transportation Committee he's been successful in securing funding for the state.
"When we crafted the transportation bill, Minnesota had the second biggest increase in funding of any state in the union to make sure we're funding our roads here," he said.
Transportation is a big issue in northwest Minnesota. Dependable roads are critical for major businesses in the region like Marvin Windows and Arctic Cat snowmobiles. Farmers need roads to get their crops to local markets.
Amy Klobuchar said there are ways to get the money for needed repairs.
"I believe the way to do this is to find the money in Washington," she said. "You know, there is no reason we can't use general funds to supplement the gas tax, I don't believe we should increase the federal gas tax because I believe that would be a burden on middle-class families that are already too burdened," she said.
Klobuchar also said she would work to pressure railroads to lower shipping rates for farmers. Fitzgerald said the real problem with solving the state's transportation issue is that politicians are diverting money from badly needed road repairs to special projects that have nothing to do with transportation.
"And the root problem is the number of earmarks that recently were in the transportation bill that could be totaled to the tune of $12.4 billion in earmarks. Earmarks are when a congressman picks a pet project and funds it. Five thousand earmarks were in the last transportation bill," he said.
Neither of Fitzgerald's opponents seemed interested in addressing his points. During the debate Kennedy repeatedly attacked Amy Klobuchar on everything from trade policy to the war in Iraq.
At one point Klobuchar chided Kennedy for leaving his "Minnesota nice" in Washington.
The debate was the latest in a series promoted by the non-partisan group Debate Minnesota.
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