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Minnesota Senate candidates clash on Iraq, taxes

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Before the debate
Amy Klobuchar and Mark Kennedy shake hands prior to a debate on "Meet the Press" during a taping at the NBC studios.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press

Throughout the 35-minute debate, Meet the Press host Tim Russert fired pointed questions at both Kennedy and Klobuchar.  Russert asked Kennedy if he would have voted for the war in Iraq if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction in the country. Kennedy defended his vote. 

 "You can't really play TiVo and rewind in the real world.  Let me just say this, first of all: I stand by my vote," Kennedy said.

Making a point
Mark Kennedy makes a point to Meet the Press host Tim Russert during questioning in a debate between Kennedy and Amy Klobuchar.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Kennedy said there have been more challenges in Iraq than he expected and may have been a bit optimistic about the outcome.  But he said he thinks the war can be won militarily, and favors keeping the troops there until the terrorists are defeated.   

The war in Iraq dominated much of the discussion.  Kennedy called it the No. 1 issue in the race.  

"I think that it is one of the central fronts on the war on terror.  Osama bin Laden and Zarqawi says as well.  She (Klobuchar) has set out a specific timetable for bringing our troops home that would tell the terrorists when they can take over an oil-rich country as a sanctuary for terrorists.  I believe we ought to be bringing our troops home as soon as we can after we're sure the terrorists can't win," Kennedy said.

But Klobuchar told Russert, "You cannot solve a problem that you don't admit exists, and that is what's going on here with the congressman."

Klobuchar said she favored bringing some troops home, but emphasized that she doesn't favor an immediate pullout of all U.S. troops.  She also said the answer to the war is greater diplomatic and political pressure.  

Russert challenged Klobuchar on a statement she made in March -- saying Congress should order the Joint Chiefs of Staff to draw down U.S. troops even if the president and military commanders don't provide a plan to do it.  

"So you would overrule the military commanders,  and you think the Senate has the authority to direct or order the Joint Chiefs of Staff to draw down troops?" Russert asked.

"Tim, no I don't believe that.  What I was saying here was because the president refuses to bring us a plan and deal with this as is, as a civil war, that we need to have the direction coming from Washington.  Of course we should listen to the commanders on the ground.  In fact, there are generals who say we should change course," Klobuchar said.

Russert pressed Kennedy about portraying himself as independent while siding with President Bush's policies nine out of every 10 times.

Kennedy spent a large part of the debate criticizing Klobuchar.  He took aim at her for wanting to roll back the tax cuts on those making more than $200,000 a year, being soft on the war on terror and for the rising crime rate in Minneapolis.  

Kennedy also used a line of attack that several GOP candidates have been using across the country -- that Klobuchar supports giving Social Security to illegal immigrants. 

"She supported a bill that had given Social Security to illegal immigrants," Kennedy said.  "When you talk about Bush, people aren't going to be focused on Bush, they're going to be focused on issues.  And I can tell you, Tim, I've been all over the state of Minnesota.  People are finding a lot of support for my policies of keeping spending under control so we can keep taxes low."

Kennedy's criticisms are not new but are becoming more frequent.  Every independent poll shows Kennedy trailing Klobuchar by a substantial margin. A Star Tribune poll released over the weekend has Klobuchar leading Kennedy by 21 percentage points. 

With a little more than three weeks left before the election, Kennedy is running out of time to close the gap.

Klobuchar hit back on several occasions and defended her policy positions.  She says she doesn't support giving Social Security benefits to immigrants.  She does support a proposal that would have given credit to new citizens who paid Social Security taxes when they worked in the country illegally.  

Klobuchar also defended her plan to roll back President Bush's tax cuts on those making more than $200,000 a year.  She says the plan would not harm the economy and would reduce the federal deficit.

 "Right now we're in a situation where our debt is approaching $9 trillion, where this administration and this Congress took a $250 billion surplus and turned it into a $250 billion  deficit," Klobuchar said.  "Why does this hurt the people in our state?  It's not just some chart on a wall.  One out of 12 of the federal tax dollars that they're paying goes to interest on this debt."

On the issue of North Korea, both candidates say they don't think President Bush should take the military option off the table to stop the country's nuclear weapons program, but want to see if sanctions work first.  

Kennedy and Klobuchar are scheduled to meet in three more debates before the Nov. 7 election. Independence Party member Robert Fitzgerald was not included in the Meet the Press debate, but is expected to appear in the others.