Sans third parties, Coleman and Mondale clash in debate

by Erin Madsen

The gloves came off for the first time as Democratic Senate candidate Walter Mondale and Republican candidate Norm Coleman compared their political experiences and visions for the future in their first and only debate Monday at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater.

Mondale challenged Coleman’s plan to “change the tone in Washington,” calling his campaign “the poster child for what is wrong in politics,” while Coleman said Mondale’s criticism reflected why pressing issues – such as prescription drug coverage – remain unresolved.

“When it comes to prescription drugs Ö I support Ö getting it done,” Coleman said.

“The House passed a bill. There was a tripartisan bill there. And the fact is that the Senate didn’t get it done,” Coleman said. “The Senate adjourned, and there’s no prescription drug benefit bill, there’s no energy bill, there’s no budget.”

Mondale said Coleman supports “the drug industry’s bill,” while the former vice president wants pharmaceuticals to be included under Medicare.

“That’s what senior citizens want,” Mondale said to Coleman. “My bill is good for senior citizens. You said, ‘Get it done.’ I don’t think your bill should get done. I think we should do something that seniors can count on.”

Hosts Paul Magers of KARE-11 news and Gary Eichten of Minnesota Public Radio – the debate’s sponsors – asked the candidates to explain what this election, considered to be one of the closest in the country, is all about.

Coleman said he wants to look beyond bipartisan politics and “move across the aisle” while representing Minnesotans.

“I was a Republican mayor in a Democratic city,” said Coleman, the former St. Paul mayor, “and we figured out a way to get together.”

Mondale said his experience as former president of the Senate will help him serve Minnesota better than Coleman.

“I have been (in the Senate). I’ve served this state all my life. And I am ready to serve again if the public wants me,” Mondale said. “So it’s not just about the future, it’s where that future is going to go.”

Both candidates accused each other of having special interests with various corporations, which they said discredited their campaigns and characters.

“You’ve taken not thousands, but millions of dollars from the special interests, from the Enrons,” Mondale said to Coleman. “You have walked the line. And I can be independent. I owe no one when I go to Washington.”

But Coleman said Mondale’s presence on the board of Northwest Airlines, Cargill and CNA Insurance Agency compromised his position as the Democrat replacing the late Sen. Paul Wellstone after his Oct. 25 death.

“When (Mondale) talks about special interests Ö I think it would be fair to say that in your experience over the last eight years, that’s been your universe Ö and that’s not Paul Wellstone,” Coleman said to Mondale.

Mondale said he would not apologize for serving on corporate boards, adding that Northwest is one of the largest employers in Minnesota and called Coleman’s interest in his past involvement “charming.”

“I think it’s good that a senator goes down there and knows both the cause of social justice and how it works in the private community,” Mondale said.

The candidates discussed President George W. Bush’s attempts to obtain more Senate support for his federal judicial nominations.

Mondale said he would not approve any judicial candidate who does not support abortion rights, saying the Constitution defends a woman’s right to choose.

“I believe in choice. I think these issues should be decided by the women and the family,” Mondale said.

“You do not,” Mondale said to Coleman. “You’re opposed to it. You’re sticking with the right wing and pretending to change the tone.”

Coleman said he has a profound respect for life, adding that he would focus on the judicial nominees’ qualifications and interpretations of the Constitution, regardless of the president’s party affiliation.

“I would not be supporting folks going there saying they are judicial activists and are going to do what they say, regardless of the Constitution,” Coleman said.

The candidates also discussed the importance of a homeland security bill, but disagreed on how to pass a bill that will satisfy both the Senate and the Bush administration.

Mondale said the Senate approved a bill, but the administration rejected it because “it extended civil service protection” to employees and Bush wants more control.

Said Coleman: “The bill is being held up because folks do not want to give that authority to the president.”

The candidates also talked about a possible war with Iraq, and Mondale said the United States needs United Nations support in order to form a strong coalition of forces before taking action. But Coleman said the U.S. Senate has supported action in Iraq, and the country should continue the process even without U.N. approval.

Mondale and Coleman also debated their tax cut proposals and track records, disagreeing on who, if anyone, benefits from increased taxation.

Coleman said Mondale’s plans to increase taxes on the wealthy would be economically harmful.

“You don’t grow jobs, you don’t grow the economy, by raising taxes,” he said. “1.7 million Minnesota families received rebates as a result of (Bush’s) tax bill, and that’s a good thing for Minnesota.”

But Mondale said middle class Americans don’t benefit from Bush’s tax cut, adding that 40 percent of the relief is given to the country’s richest citizens.

“Most of the tax relief goes to that 1 percent of the wealthiest in the bill that you want,” Mondale said. “If we’d given that tax relief instead to middle and moderate income Americans, most Minnesotans would have gotten real relief.”

Mondale wins debate

mondale won Monday’s debate over Coleman, according to a renowned panel of Minnesota debate coaches.

The Minnesota Debate Teacher’s Association assembled a panel of four debate coaches to evaluate the debate – three panelists said Mondale defeated perceptions that “he is out of touch or lacks vitality.”

They also said Mondale’s argumentation skills were better than Coleman’s, adding that Mondale gave more specific answers, while Coleman’s responses were often vague.

Erin Madsen welcomes comments at [email protected]