The debate also offered a glimpse into the personalities of these three men, as they talked about what they liked and disliked about each other.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty began the debate by calling his opponents "Mr. Doom" and "Mr. Gloom" for focusing on the problems facing Minnesota. He accused DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch of double-speak on the gas tax, college tuition and immigration. And Pawlenty criticized Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson for supporting a proposal that would allow illegal immigrants who graduate from a Minnesota high school to qualify for in-state college tuition.
But when asked what he admired about his challengers, the Republican governor had compliments for both, starting with the man who works across the hall from him.
"I think one thing I admire about the attorney general is he's a hard worker" Pawlenty said. "I see him when he comes, when he goes, and he puts in a lot of hours. So I think he's got a hard-working work ethic, and I think that's a good thing.
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"As to Peter Hutchinson, I think he's a thoughtful person. I've admired his career. I don't always agree with him, but he takes a thoughtful approach, not withstanding his cursing here during the debate."
Pawlenty was referring to Hutchinson's comment a minute earlier, when Hutchinson questioned the governor's rosy assessment of the state.
"Tim Pawlenty rattles off this list of accolades. I'm sure they're wonderful, but it doesn't explain why people are so pissed off," he said.
Hutchinson says Minnesotans are frustrated with rising property taxes and health care costs. And he says voters are sick of the partisan gridlock at the Capitol, and the nasty campaign ads being run by Republicans and Democrats.
Hutchinson is hoping to break through the ad wars, and the first televised debate may have given him his greatest visibility to date. Debate organizers say about 300-thousand Minnesotans viewed the debate, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and KSTP. Hutchinson is running a distant third in the polls, which have shown Pawlenty and Hatch locked in a close race.
Hatch criticized Pawlenty throughout the debate. Hatch says Pawlenty balanced the budget on the backs of college students and the middle class. And Hatch repeated the claim of his latest television ad, which says the Pawlenty administration has failed to enforce labor laws.
"If his department of labor would go out to these work sites and go in and take a look at the fact that people are being paid in cash, that OSHA violations are occuring repeatedly, in fact, one construction site in Minneapolis, asbestos was flying around the downtown area, nobody enforced the law, even though reports were made to the Department of Labor," Hatch said.
Pawlenty says Hatch's assertions are wrong, and he accused Hatch of "making things up" throughout the campaign. Pawlenty says Hatch unfairly blames his administration for putting sex offenders in nursing homes.
"One of the sex offenders in question was put there in the Ventura administration, two others were there under court order and the other one wasn't put there by us," Pawlenty said. "It's an example of him, as usual, taking facts, drawing a very bold and unfair conclusion. And it's pretty reckless and it's pretty dangerous."
Hatch repeated his assertion that budget cuts forced the Pawlenty administration to place sex offenders in nursing homes. Both of Hatch's opponents say the attorney general can be too combative, a description Hatch embraced when promising to make Minnesota a global competitor.
"I don't let go," Hatch said. "I AM a bulldog. I will tackle it. I'll get the job done."
Hatch is pledging to lower college tuition and invest in stem cell research and fiber optics. Hutchinson challenged both Hatch and Pawlenty to spell out how they'll pay for their education and other spending priorities.
"We're talking a billion dollars plus for both of you, and neither one of you has the resources," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson says his health care plan will save the state more than a billion dollars a year. The three candidates will debate twice more before Election Day - Friday night on Twin Cities Public Television, and Sunday night on Minnesota Public Radio.