In a U.S. Senate race where the Iraq war ranks far behind the economy in the minds of Minnesota voters, the state's top candidates continue to spar chiefly over the war.

On Tuesday, DFL candidate Al Franken stepped in front of reporters at the Capitol to chastise U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman for his continued support of the war, saying that he was "astounded" to hear that Coleman still considered the decision to go to war the right one.

Coleman had said on Monday that while he still believes the U.S. needed to topple the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, mistakes were made in handling the insurgency and reconstruction.

Franken jumped on that Tuesday, saying that Coleman wanted to "stay the course" in Iraq while Franken supports a withdrawal that could start in 10 to 15 months.

Without a withdrawal plan, Franken said, Iraqis had no incentive to take responsibility for their own country.

Franken also renewed his call to have Iraq fund its own reconstruction, a position that has become widely held among Democrats frustrated at their inability to stop the flow of U.S. funds to Iraq. Coleman campaign spokesman Luke Friedrich on Tuesday said that Coleman began calling for Iraq to pay for its own reconstruction back in March.

One clear difference did emerge Tuesday. Friedrich said that Coleman believes the decision to withdraw troops and reduce military presence is one that should be made not by politicians but by generals in command, more specifically, by Gen. David Petraeus.

"The general is the one on the ground," Friedrich said. "And the general's not going to be subject to the political whims that can sometimes guide those kinds of decisions."

Franken said that the U.S., civilian-led government must take charge of that decision. "We don't let the generals run things in this country," Franken said. "I've talked to generals when I've been to Iraq. They know ... that these decisions are made by civilian authority. I've never met anyone in the military who doesn't understand this. I'm surprised that Sen. Norm Coleman doesn't understand that."

Franken said that Republicans have been making "circular arguments," appointing generals to achieve a mission and then claiming the generals are dictating the mission.

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288