Mike McFadden walked into caucus meetings a few weeks ago in Apple Valley wanting to talk federal budget and the Affordable Care Act.
Then came a question about his view on the Patriot Act and its power to hold people indefinitely without being charged. The GOP candidate for Senate left the room without answering, telling caucus-goers, "I've got to run to another meeting."
Pressed by a reporter in the hallway, he offered an answer that had nothing to do with the Patriot Act. "Once again, my focus is on the economy, education and health care."
For his critics, it was fresh evidence that McFadden, a first-time candidate and one of half a dozen Republicans competing to run against DFL Sen. Al Franken, was ducking issues.
McFadden, though, is pushing back.
This week, he added an issues section to his campaign website. In an extended MPR News interview, he staked out some of the specifics critics accuse him of avoiding.
On the Patriot Act, he said he thinks some changes are needed to protect civil liberties. "It strikes me that we're out of balance right now in this country; that we've gone too far towards invading American individuals' privacy," he said. "I think we need to get back into the right balance."
McFadden also said he would not have voted for the latest debt ceiling increase because it did not also cut spending.
On Social Security and Medicare, he said he wouldn't change anything for current recipients or people close to retirement, but added he wouldn't make that promise to younger people.
"We can't make the same promises to our sons and daughters that we made to our mom and dad. We just can't," he said. "We're on the road to insolvency. We have to address issues like this. It's the elephant in the room and the political consultants aren't going to like this, but I think everything's on the table."
On immigration, McFadden said the country should secure its borders. He said he's opposed to amnesty but talked about a possible pathway to citizenship.
"They'd pay fines and back taxes," he said. "They would subject themselves to background checks, they would learn English and civics and then they go to the back of the immigration line." On gun control, McFadden said he opposes universal background checks and a national registry of gun owners.
His clearer positions may not satisfy his critics. That includes state Sen. Julianne Ortman, R- Chanhassen, one of the GOP candidates also seeking to unseat Franken.
"I think it's a fair thing for Minnesotans to ask important questions about where he stands on the issues, and from what I'm hearing they're not getting very clear answers," Ortman said before McFadden remade his website.
McFadden says he talks about issues all the time and has made dozens of appearances around the state.
"I have participated in many forums with the candidates, I've also participated in debates, and every night and every day we're talking about these issues."
But the only debate McFadden attended was closed to the public and the media.
McFadden's initial response to the Patriot Act question at the caucus in Apple Valley still frustrates 62-year-old Larry Billson, the guy who asked the question.
"He ducked. He literally put his head down and walked out of the room and said I've got to go," Billson recalled.
Billson said he was sorely disappointed with McFadden's refusal to answer his question, calling it "kind of cowardly." He said he would never vote for McFadden.
With almost $1.7 million in campaign cash at the end of last year McFadden has far outraised his Republican opponents. He's defended his concentration on fundraising and reiterated that he's running against Franken, not Republicans.
"When I left my job six months ago to jump into this race it was with the idea that I'm running against Al Franken, and that's what I think about every morning when I wake up," he said. "It's what this campaign thinks about and I'm willing to meet Al Franken for a debate any time, any place."
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