Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack and Democrat Rick Nolan slugged it out in a debate Tuesday, the latest spirited exchange in what is emerging as one of the most expensive and closely watched races in the country.

The two sides clashed over who best represents the area as well as issues such as health care and their voting records.

"I am a lunch pail Republican, I am a pro-union Republican and I have the record to prove it," said Cravaack, who came out strongly after recent fundraising reports show he trailed his rival in contributions.

Nolan, a former congressman, noted his deep family and business ties in the area, trying to shore up votes from union members and working-class voters heavily courted by Cravaack.

"You strengthen the middle class from the inside out, not the top down," Nolan said at the debate in Cambridge, Minn.

The rivals are battling to represent northeastern Minnesota's expansive Eighth Congressional District, an area where residents traditionally have strong union ties but more conservative social values. The area had been a reliable Democratic stronghold for decades until two years ago, when Cravaack stunned political watchers by beating powerful longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar. Cravaack is trying to ensure the seat remains solidly Republican, while Nolan is resurrecting his political career after leaving Congress 30 years ago to wrestle the seat back into Democratic hands.

Nolan and Cravaack scrapped on the impact of the federal stimulus program and whether they would repeal President Obama's health care overhaul. Cravaack said he would dump the program, which he deemed too expensive and complex. Nolan supports the plan, saying it covers millions of uninsured Americans and prevents people with pre-existing conditions from being denied coverage.

The candidates used nearly every question to jab at each other.

Nolan accused Cravaack of trying to portray himself as a friend of working men and women while taking money from industrialist millionaires Charles and David Koch to carry out their union-busting agenda in Congress.

"You might be for mining, but you are a company man, not a working man," Nolan said.

Cravaack countered that as an airline pilot he was a union leader at Northwest Airlines and has regularly bucked his party on key votes he thought would hurt the district, despite sometimes intense pressure from fellow Republicans.

Clash on environment

One of the most heated exchanges came over the environment. As the economy in northeastern Minnesota has languished, many residents in the area now blame environmentalists for imposing government regulations that they say have suffocated mining activity. The issue has stoked animosity among groups outside the area that want the region to remain a pristine recreation area and the local residents struggling to scrape by.

"We need jobs and we need good-paying jobs," Cravaack said. "We can do both. I am convinced of it."

Nolan also stressed that "we can do the dance" of balancing environmental protections with a thriving and sustainable economy.

Cravaack noted that Nolan helped created the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness decades ago, which prevented any development, mining or use of motorized vehicles in the park -- a move that resulted in a treasured environmental preserve, but one that rankles many locals to this day.

Cravaack said sharply: "You sided with Twin Cities environmentalists" over economic development.

In a notable interruption, Nolan shot back: "Chip, stop trying to divide."

Nolan then said he was proud of his role creating the BWCA, which helped turn the area into a tourist hub.

Cravaack at one point blasted Nolan for missing what he called crucial votes decades ago, including a vote to increase benefits for veterans, while regularly voting to raise his own salary.

Nolan shot back that he was always there for big issues and significant votes.

In a sign of the growing intensity in a race most polls show to be a dead heat, both campaigns pumped out more than a dozen real-time rebuttals during the hourlong debate, sponsored by Debate Minnesota. They have one more debate, set for Oct. 31, before the election.

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044