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Franken comes out firing in debate

File Photo: Al Franken thinks hard Tuesday while answering a quiz question at the University of Minnesota booth at FarmFest. He later debated U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, whom he hopes to replace. (Don Davis/Minn. State Capitol Bureau)

REDWOOD FALLS -- Al Franken took the offensive in his first face-to-face meeting with incumbent U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman.

At every turn during a FarmFest forum Tuesday, the Democrat challenger accused Republican Coleman of siding with President Bush.

"This guy hasn't been working for you," Franken said of Coleman, "he has been working for President Bush and special interests."

Franken hit on that topic time after time during a nearly 90-minute forum during the annual all-things-farm event near Redwood Falls in southwestern Minnesota.

Coleman, meanwhile, told the overflow audience that he opposed Bush on many rural issues such as the recently enacted farm bill, which Bush vetoed. He repeatedly talked about his ability to listen to rural interests, especially farmers, and take that message to Washington regardless of what Bush thought.

It was the first of what is expected to be several debates involving Coleman and Franken. Also in the forum was Steve Williams, the Independence Party's endorsed candidate, and former U.S. Sen. Dean Barkley, challenging Williams in the Independence primary.

FarmFest forum organizers took some heat for inviting just four of the 18 Senate candidates, but said logistics would not permit all candidates being on stage.

Within seconds of his opening, Franken was attacking Coleman. At one point, he blamed Coleman and Bush for the country's sagging economy: "The Bush-Coleman team has driven this economy into the ditch and Norm Coleman was riding shotgun all the way."

However, the mostly farmer audience appeared to favor Coleman, consistently giving him the loudest applause.

"I have the benefit of having worked with people in this room six years," Coleman said after the forum. "They are happy. ... I have listened to the folks here."

"I have fought the president," Coleman declared, trying to counter Franken's charges that he is Bush's top supporter. He particularly pointed out his votes to override two Bush farm bill vetoes.

Coleman said the rural vote is critical to his re-election campaign, and he took every opportunity Tuesday to drive home the point that he has worked closely with agriculture groups.

But U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he has been working with Franken to bring him up to speed on such issues. Peterson is House Agriculture Committee chairman and did the same type of tutoring with now-Sen. Amy Klobuchar two years ago.

Peterson had few criticisms of Coleman, other than his support of the Central American Free Trade Agreement that sugar beet growers, especially, opposed. Franken often mentioned that pact as a Coleman negative.

Franken accused Coleman of selling out the state's sugar industry when he voted for a Central American trade deal. Coleman, however, said many Minnesota farmers liked the pact, and he worked with sugar industry leaders to make the best of the deal.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.