With just over two weeks left until Election Day, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican challenger Jeff Johnson used their fourth debate to sharpen some familiar criticisms about political philosophies.
Health care and economic issues were front and center, as were competing ideas on guns and budget surpluses in the televised event at Hamline University in St. Paul.
Johnson opened by pledging to stand up for what he called the "forgotten middle class," by lowering income, sales, property and corporate to create jobs. Johnson said if the state has a budget surplus, he would use that money to make changes in the income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes and corporate taxes.
"We are not competitive with other states in our region. We're certainly not competitive with the states that surround us. You can go to any border community, and the people there will tell you that, and it's hurting Minnesotans and it's hurting us from a jobs standpoint," Johnson asserted.
Later in the debate, Johnson said he had "no clue" how he would define a middle class income. Dayton said he thinks the starting point is around $50,000 a year.
The governor said he wants to help that middle class by trying to lower property taxes during a second term. He said he would use part of any budget surplus to expand the state's child-care tax credit.
"It includes more of the middle class working parents," he said. "It keeps pace with the rising costs. That's something that I proposed in the last legislative session. Unfortunately, it was not adopted. But I would press for that."
Dayton and Johnson also highlighted their differing views on gun control. Dayton said requiring criminal background checks for online and gun show purchases would close what he described as a "huge loophole."
"We want to find out first if they're psychiatrically capable of handling that responsibility or if they have a criminal background that should disqualify them. So, why wouldn't we make that consistent statewide? I believe we should," he said.
Johnson said he would oppose such measures. He said there are already enough laws on the books to keep people protected.
"Going forward with new legislation and having this cultural war that we love to have about guns, I don't think that really benefits anyone in the end."
Both men said they own guns and have used them within the past year. They both agreed to continue the policy of allowing gun owners to carry weapons inside the state Capitol building.
Johnson took aim at Dayton with criticisms on his leadership, aspects of the Vikings stadium bill, the potential release of sex offenders and the state health insurance exchange MNsure. Johnson said health care in Minnesota's has been "sucked down" to the national average under Dayton.
"It's been an unmitigated disaster. I know governor you said you don't lose any sleep over that, but I do trying to figure out how we're going to fix that mess when I'm governor," he said.
Dayton said MNsure is far from perfect, but he added that there are thousands who now have health care access that they didn't have before.
Dayton also criticized Johnson for offering few specifics about his budget plans, his admiration of Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker, and his ties to the tea party.
"You kept saying to tea party groups. 'I want your endorsement.' Then after the primary you said, 'Well I never asked for their endorsement.' You've got to take one position at the beginning of the year and follow it all the way through," Dayton said.
This was the second time this month that organizers of a debate left out Hannah Nicollet, the Independence Party candidate for governor. Nicollet and some of her supporters protested that decision outside the event.
"You know, there is no legal distinction between myself as a candidate and Jeff Johnson and Mark Dayton, since we are a major party in the state of Minnesota," she said. "The excuses that we've been given for not being included are not valid."
Nicollet said she is also excluded from the campaign's final debate, which is scheduled for Halloween night on public television.
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