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Senate candidates face off for the first time

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Farmfest Senate debate
DFLer Al Franken, left, and IP candidate Dean Barkley participated in a U.S. Senate candidate forum Tuesday at Farmfest. Incumbent Republican Norm Coleman also took part.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

For nearly  a year and a half  Norm Coleman and Al Franken have been exchanging barbs.  Tuesday the competing news conferences, campaign events and television commercials gave way to a face-to-face discussion.

And from the start  Franken went after Coleman with a familiar charge, that the senator is beholden to special interests, including the oil industry. 

"While George W. Bush has been president our dependence on foreign oil has gone up almost every year," Franken said. We've gone the wrong way because we've gone to oil and more and more oil and Norm Coleman is in the pocket of oil. He's received more contributions from big oil than any other politician in the history of Minnesota." 

Coleman responded by saying much of Franken's criticism about his support for so-called big oil is rooted in his vote for the 2005 energy bill.  That legislation gave billions of tax subsidies to the energy industry,  but  also included unprecedented incentives to increase the  production of renewable fuels. 

Coleman at debate
U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and several of his challengers in the upcoming election debated Tuesday at Farmfest in Redwood Falls. It was the first face-to-face appearance by Coleman, a Republican, and his main DFL challenger Al Franken.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Coleman ripped Franken for opposing expanded offshore drilling for  oil and natural gas.  

"We need to tap into more domestic production," Coleman said. "Open up 85 percent of the outer continental shelf that's off limits.  You've got to do shale oil, clean coal.  We've got to do nuclear, more nuclear, renewables the whole ball of wax. If can do that we will no longer be held hostage to Saudi sheiks who are not our friends. "

The  Farmfest debate featured a number of questions for the candidates posed by a panel of farm reporters. 

Joining Franken and Coleman under the big tent before hundreds of onlookers, were Independence Party candidates Dean Barkly and Steve Williams. 

Willams has the Independence Party endorsement. 

Farmfest organizers say they invited Barkey to the forum because of his time in the U.S. Senate.  Barkey's political ally Jesse Ventura appointed him to briefly fill Sen. Paul Wellstone's seat following Wellstone's death in a plane crash in 2002. 

Williams stressed  the importance of energy conservation.

"Conservation is the only near-term solution," he said. "Long-term, yes, we have to develop the alternative energies and the energy saving technologies that will allow our nation to lead the world in the coming decades."   Barkley blamed the two party system for the nation's dependence on foreign energy.

"I'm old enough to remember the last energy crisis back in the 70's when we had gas lines and we talked about the need for alternative energy," he said.  "And what's happened in the last  30 years? Practically nothing. Brazil has become energy independent by going to bio-fuels. If Brazil can do it why can't we?"  

As the discussion about energy continued  Franken kept up with his aggressive criticism of Coleman.

"While Norm Coleman has been senator, the cost of oil has tripled, the cost of gas has doubled and he's talking about doing the same old, same old," he said.

Coleman rolled-out his own statistics in response. And he took the opportunity to renew his crowd-pleasing call for more drilling. 

"The price of has gas just about doubled since Nancy Pelosi," he said. "And both Mr. Franken and Ms. Pelosi are  wrong when they oppose opening up new sources of drilling in the outer continental shelf, and they're wrong when they oppose expanding nuclear energy now."

Coleman criticized Franken for opposing new nuclear power plants until the issue of waste disposal is solved. 

"Nuclear energy is cost-efficient. It's safe. It doesn't pollute the air," Coleman said.  "So we need to move forward, and this is an area where there is difference between myself and Mr. Franken.  You can't say you're for nuclear energy and say, well, we've got to wait to figure out what we do with the waste. It means you're not going to do it."

Coleman often cites France as an example of where nuclear power works.  Coleman repeated at the debate his line that if France can do it, the U.S. can because, in Coleman's words, the French are not braver than we are. 

Franken defended his position.

"I do want to make sure that we can dispose of the waste properly," he said. "The French do get 80 percent of  their electricity, not their energy as Norm said, from nuclear and they dispose of their waste  by recycling it.  And we've been against recycling it because  it creates plutonium  which can be used as  a nuclear weapon."

On immigration, Franken called for comprehensive reform, including a way to make illegal immigants citizens. 

"I think the 12 million or so that are here, the ones who've been working, the ones who have been obeying the law should be put on a path to citizenship," Franken said.

Coleman promoted enhanced border security and said without closed borders the problems of illegal immigration will only get worse.  He dismissed Franken's call for  a path to citizenship.

"Where I disagree with my DFL opponent is I don't think it requires a path to citizenship," Coleman said. "We're a country of laws. There are folks who are waiting in line throughout the world to come here.  But people should have the opportunity to work so what you do is you set up a secure ID program."

On many issues Independence Party-endorsed candidate Steve Williams talked about the need for national health care.

"We need to pay for universal health insurance and Social Security with a national sales tax instead of forcing both of those costs on the workers and the employers," he said.

Dean Barkley repeatedly talked about the national debt.

"Right now what we have is financial child abuse for our children's future because of the amount of debt that we're piling on them," he said. "We ought to be ashamed of ourselves."

Franken repeatedly accused Coleman of selling out farmers in areas of trade policy, in the milk program and in "country of origin labeling," otherwise known as COOL.

And Franken chose to hammer those points home in his closing remarks.

"Ask livestock producers  about his vote to delay COOL," he said.  "Ask the sugar beet farmers about his vote on CAFTA or ask a dairy farmer about his vote on milk to reduce it from a 45 to a 34 percent, payment and they'll tell  you when it counted Norm Coleman wasn't there for them." 

Coleman used his closing remarks to rebut Franken's charge that he's been in lock-step with President Bush. Coleman  conceded nothing to Franken and instead called himself a champion of farmers. 

"I've been a United States Senator on the Senate Ag Committee working with the folks here, producing, by the way, a farm bill that's an extraordinary bill; overriding two presidential vetos; producing a water resources development act; overriding a veto; producing two major energy bills that created a renewable fuel standard that has released the renewable fuel revolution," he said. 

Following the forum  Coleman told reporters nothing surprised him in his first debate with Franken. 

"I expected that he'd be aggressive," he said. "I expected that. This was not an eye opener."   Franken defended his approach and dismissed Coleman's claims of bipartisanship. 

"He's been part of the most partisan era of the Republican Party ever," he said.  "So for him to come here and say, 'oh, I'm bipartisan. I work  across party lines,' I just people to know what his record has been. That's all."

Franken and Coleman have not yet agreed to any more debates beyond the Farmfest forum.