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Senate candidates meet for last debate

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U.S. Senate candidates
The major U.S. Senate candidate, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley and DFL Al Franken, participate in the final Senate candidate debate moderated by Gary Eichten.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

About 1,000 people filled the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul for the last debate sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio News.

Coverage of the race for the past few days has centered around allegations that one of Norm Coleman's friends facilitated the transfer of $75,000 to the Senator through the insurance company Coleman's wife works for. 

Coleman has firmly denied the charge. During the debate he said he has never received any unreported money.  

Campaign supporters
Supporters of U.S. Senate candidates Norm Coleman and Al Franken stand outside the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Tonight the candidates for U.S. Senate hold their fifth and final debate before Tuesday's election.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Coleman kept up with his accusations that Al Franken and Democrats are behind the 11th hour allegations, but Coleman was unable to offer evidence of that. Coleman went after Franken for not speaking out against an outside ad about the allegations which Coleman says attacks his wife.

"What he doesn't get is that when you take the candidate's wife and you put a commercial up the same day this thing is filed defaming my wife -- she has a right to earn a living, she has a right to live a life," said Coleman. "Al maybe you just don't know there are lines you don't cross.  Maybe that's your career of not knowing there's a line to be crossed."

Franken said he had no involvement in the allegations. Franken stopped short of calling Coleman corrupt, but he said the allegations involving a conspiracy to funnel money to a sitting U.S. Senator are very serious.

"This is not about Norm Coleman's wife. This is about Senator Coleman's political sugar daddy. That's what this is about," said Franken.

Debate crowd
A large audience gathered at the Fitzgerald Theater for the final debate between Minnesota's candidates for U.S. Senate.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

Moderator Gary Eichten frequently found himself  sternly calling on the audience to refrain from  interrupting the hour long debate.

Dean Barkley from the Independence Party called the allegations and fighting over them a fitting cap to what he called the most negative U.S. Senate campaign in Minnesota's history. 

"Both my opponents have spent about $20 million each filling our airwaves with garbage this entire campaign, and I don't know who's right and wrong on this. We're not going to find out up here on the stage on whether or not there's any truth to that allegation whether the timing is suspect. Certainly it's suspect," said Barkley.

When asked about the biggest challenge facing the nation, Barkley said it was restoring confidence in the federal government. Coleman said it is getting past partisan fighting. Franken said the biggest challenge is reviving the economy. 

Both Coleman and Barkley proposed a spending freeze. Franken spoke out against that idea,  saying now's the time for the federal government to increase spending.

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"The way that President Clinton created record surpluses were  a couple of things, and it was investing in things that had a return on investment in education, in infrastructure and research and development, all the things the were cut and all the things that would be frozen with this freeze which is a crude instrument. We need to cut things with a scalpel not a meat clever," said Franken.

Coleman said moving ahead with Franken's proposed spending programs could push the nation from recession in to a depression. Barkley underscored the need to address the increasing national debt. 

The candidates themselves were invited to ask each other  a question.  Barkley asked  Franken  whether he agrees with John McCain on anything that Barack Obama is not talking about. Franken answered this way:

"And this is actually from the Sarah Palin-Biden  debate. She was talking about using counter-terrorist techniques in Afghanistan, and I agree with that, so I agree with Sarah Palin," said Franken.   Coleman asked Franken to name three things he's done to either help a Minnesota farmer, a Minnesota small business or a Minnesota neighborhood.

"Okay. I think your point might be that I haven't been a political office holder, so if you're asking what piece of legislation I've done, no, I haven't done one. I've done a lot of visiting of chemical dependency rehabs," said Franken.

Franken also said he's done numerous speeches for all kinds of charities. 

Franken asked Coleman if he would support a lifetime ban on lobbying for former member of Congress. Coleman said he would not.

"Al suggested this when gas prices were high and it's one of the ways we can kind of  bring down the price of gas. We've got to ban Senators from being lobbyists. That's not an answer. It wasn't an answer at that point. It's not an answer now," said Coleman.

On taxes, Barkley and Franken said they would not extend tax cuts for wealthy Americans that are set to expire. Coleman said he would and that he doesn't want to raise anyone's taxes. 

The three wrapped up their final debate with final appeals for support beginning with Democrat Al Franken.

"Elections are a chance to hold our elected officials accountable. If you like the way things have been going in Washington for the past  six years, and you think George Bush is right 90 percent of the time, then I'm not your guy. But if you want change in Washington, if you believe the middle class is the engine of our prosperity, not the rich and the oil companies, then I ask for your vote," said Franken.

Republican Sen. Norm Coleman made the argument that he's best positioned to work across party lines for solutions.

"My opponents will say, I believe, that when you walk in the booth, the question is who do you blame. I think the question is who's going to fix it," said Coleman.   Coleman noted the numerous newspaper endorsements he has received.

"That's the key. Thirty-eight out of 42 newspapers in this state, when asked that question, came to the conclusion that I was the best choice to fix it. What's necessary is the ability to cooperate, to work across the isle.  That's what I have done," said Coleman.

Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley said  he's the clear choice for voters who are seeking change. 

"And I ask people, do you think that either Al or Norm will change the way that Washington works? That's a question you have to ask yourself. It's clear our country needs a new direction. I submit to you I'm the only person on this stage that can bring about that change of direction. Elections should never be about who you don't want. They should be able who you do want. If you like what's Washington become, then vote for one of  my two opponents," said Barkley.

Dean Barkley will spend his  last day before Election Day campaigning in the metro area and in central Minnesota.

Norm Coleman will once again be campaigning with former New York City Mayor Rudi Giuliani.

Al Franken will spend some time campaigning with Senator Hillary Clinton, D-NY.