REDWOOD FALLS, MINN. -- In their first face-to-face meeting after months of blasting each other from a distance, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and DFL challenger Al Franken sharply questioned each other's fitness for office during a forum at FarmFest, the state's largest agricultural gathering.

Franken, who has been struggling to gain ground on the Republican incumbent, was aggressive from the start, criticizing Coleman for taking contributions from oil companies and repeatedly faulting him for his fealty to President Bush.

"People are hurting because Bush has sent the economy into a ditch, and Norm Coleman has been riding shotgun the whole way," Franken said at a table set up under a white tent packed with farmers. "We need a change in this country, and I'm going to bring a change."

Coleman avoided the pointed attacks on Franken's tax missteps and edgy comedy that marked his recent ads but cited his own work on the Senate Agriculture Committee and said he has proven to Minnesota farmers that he's working on their behalf.

"More than anyone else, I know the difference between talk and results," Coleman said. "You have to ask of each candidate, what have we done in our lives to merit serving you in the U.S. Senate?"

Coleman and Franken were joined by endorsed Independence Party candidate Stephen Williams and by Dean Barkley, who served as a U.S. senator for two months after Sen. Paul Wellstone's death in 2002 and who is challenging Williams in the Independence Party primary. Another IP candidate, Jack Uldrich, who was excluded from the debate, took questions from farmers outside the tent and sent them out over the Internet.

All four debate participants emphasized renewable fuel research and production on farms. Coleman and Franken praised the recently passed farm bill, with both calling it a needed safety net for farmers.

Looking for a wedge against two vastly better-known candidates, Barkley and Williams mixed policy with potshots at the political system and what they said was out-of-control spending by the dominant parties.

"I love our country, and I can't stand what the two-party system is doing to our country," Barkley said. "It's dragging us down. It's heading us in the wrong direction."

Fuel costs and energy policy dominated much of the forum, which ran just over an hour and was followed by a congressional debate that was broadcast on radio stations across the state.

As an Ag committee member, Coleman held something of a home-field advantage, and afterward, Franken spokeswoman Jess McIntosh said they counted the debate a success because "Franken held his own on ag issues."

Strolling from the DFL booth to the soybean tent, Franken said, "I think people were impressed and maybe pleasantly surprised by my farm policy, being conversant on the issues." As for his tone, he said, "I'm going to hold Norm accountable for his votes."

Coleman, at a table next to Johnson Seed Co., said he thought Franken's constant attempts to link him to Bush would backfire. "These are my people," he said, shaking hands with the farmers wearing feed caps who were milling around the tent. "This is like spitting into the wind for him." Franken, he said, "is hitting hard because he's behind. I get that. But he's starting out too negative. People get tired of it."

Talking energy policy

During the debate, Coleman called for an all-out approach on energy that would include oil drilling off the coasts, sugar-based ethanol and a kick-started nuclear energy policy.

"You've got to do it all," he said. "If we can do that, we will no longer be held hostage to Saudi sheiks and others who are not our friends."

Franken said he's not opposed to some offshore drilling or expansion of nuclear power if waste can be disposed of properly. But he said drilling would not solve long-term energy problems, calling instead for an "Apollo program for renewable energy" and a short-term release of oil from the nation's strategic reserves.

"We're talking about wind, we're talking about biomass and bioefuels, we're talking about rail, we're talking electric hybrid cars," he said. "We need to have a massive reinvestment in renewable energy and the winner will be rural Minnesota."

All the candidates agreed on the importance of giving farmers the option to designate some of their cropland in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), but all four said they support opening up more of the land to livestock grazing. Williams, a political novice, several times stressed his 28 years as a corn farmer.

Immigration, a topic close to ag producers who still rely heavily on imported labor, drew a varied responses from the candidates, with Coleman arguing that border security and enforcement must come before establishment of a guest worker program, which Bush has been trying to get passed. The others said Coleman's approach was impractical.

"Let's restore some sanity," Barkley said. "We're not going to deport 12 million people. That's absurd -- we couldn't do that if we wanted to."

Associated Press writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288