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Civility, issues dominate Walz-Davis debate

MANKATO, MINN.—Tired of Arab allusions, tax-dodge accusations and gift-clothes shenanigans? Negative ads and smear jobs got you down? Looking for a little meaningful discourse in Campaign 2008?

Then the race for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District seat is for you. Tim Walz, a school teacher and former air guard member finishing his first term in Washington, and Dr. Brian Davis, a physician on leave from the Mayo Clinic, differ on pretty much every issue. But this season, they’ve apparently agreed to disagree.

For 90 minutes on Monday night, the incumbent Democrat and challenging Republican answered questions from two moderators and some of the roughly 300 audience members assembled at the Centennial Student Union on the campus of Minnesota State University, Mankato. The issues were serious, the questions thoughtful, and the responses layered and nuanced. More importantly, not once did the gloves come off in the contest sponsored by Debate Minnesota.

Early on, both candidates were questioned on the one place they agree: The $700 billion bailout recently passed by Congress. Walz voted against it, Davis says he would have done the same. But the reasons are different: Walz said there weren’t enough taxpayer protections in the bill; Davis instead appeared to have a free-market philosophy that butts against government bailouts.

From there, the two differed on questions relating to the economy, energy policy, foreign policy and the like.

On the first part, both agreed that there is some sort of financial crisis going on, but differed as to the why.

“Clearly we are in an economic downturn if not an economic crisis,” Davis said. “It was precipitated by energy prices. Energy is the lifeblood of the American economy.”

Walz, instead, focused on “the stagnant wages in this country,” adding “that’s not the middle class dream.”  Economic issues kept rising to the forefront, indicating that much of what southern Minnesotans are thinking about, not surprisingly, is their pocketbooks and little else.

No Reagan moment
Though neither man got off a good joke or smiled much at the other, the two were friendly enough, seated side-by-side at a rather small table. At one point, in fact, Davis tried to make hay out of the fact that Walz voted for an earlier bailout package this summer but opposed the most recent one.

“I want you to explain how you were for it before you were against it,” Davis said, echoing the old saw about John Kerry and the vote on the war in Iraq. He then, surprisingly, gave up his answer time to let Walz answer.

“Sure, I’ll take your time,” the congressman said, clarifying that the first vote was to give some authorization to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. A Reagan “I-paid-for-this-microphone” moment it was not.

The energy debate is pretty clear cut across party lines: Davis is a subscriber to “drill, baby, drill” and Walz wants to “incentivize” alternative fuel programs. Less clear from either candidate was what to do about Iraq, although both agreed that whatever administration goes to Washington and the Pentagon need to better listen to military leaders on the ground. Further, Davis wants the Iraqi government to hold a referendum on how long the U.S. should stay there, while Walz pooh-poohed the notion that others should determine U.S. foreign policy.

One flare up
The one area that led to just a bit of a dust-up was the notion of privatizing Social Security. Walz is adamantly opposed to that, and even went on to remark that the system, at least for now, was in good shape. Davis, however, said he favored partial privatization. But what rankled him was a Walz ad that apparently claims Davis wants to cut Social Security.

“You said I wanted to cut Social Security benefits,” Davis snorted. “That’s not true.”

In all, though, the differences in positions were stark, but the demeanors were not, which probably plays well for both candidates in this traditionally conservative, but still very middle class, district. Rocking the boat too much could alienate a good number of voters who consider themselves centrists.

Afterward, supporters of both sides agreed they had seen a useful debate—even if it didn’t change their hearts or minds.

“It probably should have been stopped in the second round,” said Roger Stoufer, a 69-year-old retired schoolteacher from Mankato and Walz supporter. But in reality, Soufer conceded, the debate was amiable, if not exactly even by his measure.

At least one observer wanted a little more sniping, though. “I’d like to have seen five to 10 minutes of an open forum,” said Darryl Eastvold, a 54-year-old real estate appraiser from Mankato who supports Davis. “I’d like to see it more personal, less scripted, and have them get out there and mix it up a bit.”

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