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1st District debate is a battle of words, ideas and accusations

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     (AP)  GOP Rep. Gil Gutknecht offered an optimistic message about America's direction. Democratic challenger Tim Walz spoke of an America that's desperate for change.    

   Gutknecht and Walz engaged in a 90-minute battle of words, ideas and accusations Tuesday night. And the intensity of their debate before an overflow crowd at Bethany Lutheran College highlighted the growing consensus among political experts that southern Minnesota's 1st District race is tightening up, The Free Press reported.

      Gutknecht said that if elected to a seventh term he's concentrate on promoting economic prosperity through reduced taxes, working to implement his prescription drug reimportation plan and promoting renewable energy.

      But he said his top priority would be protecting Americans from foreign threats.

      "We need to keep America safe," Gutknecht said. "That's one of the most important things we do in Washington."

      Walz, a high school teacher who's making his first run for public office, said Washington Republicans have dragged the country into a military quagmire, driven up the national debt and left average workers worse off while pandering to wealthy special interests.

      The retired 24-year-veteran of the Army National Guard said he'd work to bring accountability to a Congress that blindly followed the Bush administration into a war that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. He also promised to invest in education and transportation, work to provide health care to the uninsured and strive to balance the federal budget.

      "This country needs to move back to the common good," Walz said. "... The American public is ready for change like they've never been ready for change."

      Walz said American's strategy in Iraq needs to start focusing on a diplomatic solution, and said the military has suffered from failed leadership in Washington.

      "Donald Rumsfeld has been wrong every step of the way with this war," Walz said.

      Gutknecht, who had strongly supported the Bush administration's conduct of the war until making a trip to Iraq in July, said mistakes have been made. But he said the war was justified because it ousted Saddam Hussein, who would have been a threat to America if left in power.

      "We were a lot more optimistic than we deserved to be," Gutknecht said. "... That doesn't mean what we did was the wrong thing."

      The candidates didn't offer any solutions for southern Minnesotans concerned about the proposed Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad expansion.

      Gutknecht said he knew the DM&E's plan to route high-speed coal trains through Mankato, Rochester, Winona and other parts of the district would be controversial. But he said the DM&E's failure to survive would be worse than the coal train project.

      Walz said Gutknecht and others in Congress failed the district by allowing a former DM&E lobbyist to insert a $2.5 billion federal loan provision for the project into a transportation bill last year.