In their first debate in a hard-fought and costly campaign, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann asserted that she knows her district while Democratic challenger Jim Graves accused her of favoring rhetoric over solutions.
The debate at the River's Edge Convention Center in St. Cloud frequently turned testy over Obamacare, taxes and the St. Croix River bridge. Graves, a hotel executive, portrayed himself as a pragmatic moderate who understands business. Bachmann, a Republican running for her fourth term, said Graves' agenda would only grow government and raise taxes and emphasized that she has her finger on the pulse of Sixth District constituents.
On entitlements, Graves said he would eliminate the $110,000 income cap on Social Security contributions. Bachmann said that would mean "the largest tax increase in American history" and said Obamacare robbed money from Medicare.
"You just heard some political speak there," Graves said. "Again, Michele doesn't say what she's for. She says what she's against."
Bachmann shot back, saying, "It's insulting to say that these are political speeches. That's one thing I do not do."
The pair also squared off over the 2010 health care legislation, which Bachmann fiercely opposes. She has claimed in television ads that Graves supports the law, citing an appearance he made on MSNBC.
"He was asked, would you campaign in favor of Obamacare and do you support Obamacare? And he said he did," Bachmann said.
Graves said her ads cut off his comments, and that he actually said the law doesn't cure the central problem of rising health care costs.
"Michele, can you read my lips, please?" Graves said. "I said there are some good things in the bill. But the heavy lifting hasn't begun."
To prove she can work across the aisle in Congress, Bachmann pointed to her work sponsoring legislation to build a new bridge across the St. Croix River. The bill passed the House in March.
"I was able to get Nancy Pelosi to even vote for this bill," Bachmann said of the House minority leader, who is a frequent target of Bachmann's criticism. "This is a major achievement ... and it's because I am here. I am one of you. I have been in this district since I was in elementary school."
Graves countered that the estimated $700 million project could be built for a fraction of the cost.
"I don't think we should be building Rolls-Royces when we can get the job done and serve those people ... in western Wisconsin with a Chevrolet," Graves said.
Bachmann attributed the high cost to government red tape and lawsuits from "radical environmental groups."
On taxes, Graves said he embraces basic concepts of the 2010 plan released by the presidential commission known as Simpson-Bowles. He advocated eliminating tax loopholes, questioned why dividends are taxed lower than income and pushed broadly for a "macro approach" to tax reform.
"Let's not do like the Obama administration has done and do little pieces here and little pieces there. He talks about the Buffett rule. Well first of all, I don't like class warfare."
Bachmann said it would be "foolish" to raise the tax rate on dividends and said the Simpson-Bowles plan would raise taxes. "I think we're taxed enough already," she said. "I don't want to increase taxes. And I think that's a very clear line of distinction."
Graves appeared more confident than Bachmann's debate partner in 2010, DFLer Tarryl Clark, but he may need a boost to win on Election Day. A Star Tribune poll earlier this month showed him trailing Bachmann by 6 percentage points, with 4 percent of voters undecided.
Graves said a lot of polls are skewed because they only call land-line phones, and he thinks the race is "neck and neck."
"I thought it was a good opportunity for the electorate to actually juxtapose Michele Bachmann against Jim Graves," Graves said. "And this is effectively a job interview."
Bachmann said after the debate that the event demonstrated that "I listen to the district, pay attention to the district, and I've delivered for the district in a bipartisan way."
The pair will square off again on Minnesota Public Radio on Thursday and then have a final meeting on KSTP-TV on Sunday.