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Michele Bachmann, Tarryl Clark both have their moments — and low points — in race’s first real debate

Surprisingly, the tone of the debate was far more civil than the tone of the brutal ads that have been playing across the 6th District for weeks.

After months of campaigning and millions of dollars spent, Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann and Democratic challenger Tarryl Clark finally met, face to face, in St. Cloud this noon.

Oh yeah, and Bob was there, too — as in Bob Anderson, the Independence Party candidate.

The tone of the debate was far more civil than the tone of the brutal ads that have been playing across the 6th District for weeks.

Sure, Bachmann and Clark disagreed on just about everything. (Anderson, it should be noted, lines up closely with Bachmann on most issues.)

Still, a funny thing happens when pols meet in person, rather than clash with ads. They may not like each other. They may not embrace. But they do try to maintain a level of respect and respectability.

Third-party candidate raps attack ads, draws applause 
When the subject of the ads was brought up at the conclusion of the debate, Anderson got his one applause of the day.

“I think you should both be ashamed,” Anderson said.

Chamber members — the St. Cloud chamber was the main sponsor of the debate — Clark and Bachmann supporters all seemed to agree with Anderson on this point.

Meantime, both candidates tried to laugh off the tone of the ads, which have ranged from dumb to obnoxious.

Clark said she didn’t know she was such a political force until Bachmann unleashed her ads. Bachmann, she said, has just released her 10th negative ad.

Tarryl Clark
Tarryl Clark

“I hope she noticed I don’t have horns on the side of my head — my head is not on Mount Rushmore [along with Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and President Obama],” Clark said.

Bachmann told the audience of more than 500 that she agrees that the ads have gone too far.

“I know it’s difficult to watch them,” she said. “I don’t like to watch them either.”

This was the low point in the debate for Bachmann. There was a groan in the room. Even her most ardent supporters understand that Bachmann might have something to do with the tone of the Bachmann ads.

But Clark had a low point, too.

Remember, this debate was sponsored by the Chamber. Many of the questions weren’t exactly the sort most Democrats would consider friendly.

When Clark was asked if she would vote to support the labor-backed Employee Free Choice Act (the bill that would make it easier for labor to organize non-union shops), Clark danced all over the place.

“I’ve always had a relationship with big labor and big business,” she said. She went on to say she’s also had relationships with “metro and rural” and “environmentalists and business.”

But she didn’t answer the question.

“I think you just heard a politician tell you she will be voting [yes] on the card check,” Bachmann said. “I’ll clearly tell you I’ll oppose it.”

Chances to ‘dance’
The question again was brought up.

Again Clark danced.

And again Bachmann was able to get off a clean, fair shot.

Rep. Michele Bachmann
MinnPost/Raoul Benavides
Rep. Michele Bachmann

“She’s had two chances to answer the question,” Bachmann said. “She still hasn’t.”

This whole event started off on a high for Clark. Her supporters — including Bowser, who once was the main man in the oldies rock group Sha Na Na — far outnumbered Bachmann supporters at the entry way to the civic center.

(A Bowser moment: He lives in Los Angeles and was first drawn into this race because of his dislike for Bachmann. Now, he adores Clark and has virtually moved to St. Cloud for the campaign. While reporters awaited Clark’s arrival, Bowser entertained with a little doo-wop. “Bah, bah, bah, bah, vote for Tar-ryl.”)

Clark was greeted by her followers like a heavyweight headed to into the ring for a title bout.

“I say Tarryl, you say Congress!” shouted a cheerleader.

“Tarryl!” he yelled.

“Congress!” her fans yelled.

Bachmann followers — older, quieter and clearly outnumbered — sort of scrunched in a corner while this was going on.

Clark swept into the Civic Center on a wave of positive vibes.

Bachmann rushed into the building, about five minutes late. Her late arrival forced her to virtually brush off the few who had come to cheer her.

Mellow Bachmann stays low-key
But once on the podium, Bachmann was in her element.

Even those who don’t agree with her political points of view would acknowledge that she comes across far different in this sort of format than when she does right-wing talk radio or TV. Today, she was clearly under control, well-spoken and prepared.

Her staff had placed charts of the bureaucracy that she says is being created by “Obama-care” on each chair in the Civic Center before the debate. The chain of command lines on the chart go in all directions.

“If you thought you had bureaucracy before [in health care], you haven’t seen anything yet,” Bachmann said, making a reference to the chart.

Bachmann, though, also is completely capable of being disingenuous.

She nailed Clark on not being specific on the free choice act but was not at all specific about her statements that entitlements such as Social Security “need reform.”

Of course, she repeatedly railed against the growing national debt and didn’t answer when Clark said, “So why did you vote against pay-as-you-go — that’s a strange position for a conservative.”

Bachmann repeatedly made negative references to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Bob Anderson
Bob Anderson

At one point, the exasperated Clark said, “You’re not running against Nancy Pelosi. You’re running against Tarryl Clark and Bob Anderson.”

This did not stop Bachmann from continuing to attack Pelosi. Cap-and-trade, health care reform and the stimulus programs all drew her scorn.

Bachmann did get herself in a little trouble when she tried to use the anecdotal technique so popular among pols.

Bachmann spoke of a 2007 visit to “a window manufacturer in Stillwater” where she was told that the biggest concern of employers was “uncertainty.” She clearly was referring to Andersen Windows, and Clark was able to point out that because of stimulus money, Andersen is enjoying huge business.

Bachmann did not respond.

Near the end of the debate, Bachmann seemed to try to calm those who might be weary of her lightning-rod status.

“I’m just trying to shake things up,” she said.

But clearly, she was trying to calm things down with her performance in this debate.

“My mother thought I did well,” she said, after the debate.

But Clark, too, said she was pleased and vowed that her supporters are ready to rumble in these last eight days.

The two candidates have two debates remaining later this week.

Oh, and Bob will be there, too.

And Bob Anderson could end up being the deciding factor. Two years ago, he picked up 10 percent of the vote. Bachmann ended up winning by 3 points.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.