With the race sprinting to the finish and a flurry of smash-mouth ads flooding the airwaves, the three candidates for Minnesota's Third Congressional District took some of their most pointed shots yet at each other during a televised debate Friday.

DFLer Ashwin Madia spent the evening fending off attacks as a tax-and-spend liberal, too aligned with the left wing of the Democratic Party to properly represent the district in the western Twin Cities suburbs that has not sent a Democrat to Congress since 1961.

Republican Erik Paulsen faced accusations that he is too socially conservative on issues such as stem cell research and that his candidacy represents much of the same problems that beset Washington.

In the middle was Independence Party long-shot David Dillon, who at times gleefully accepted the role of fielding barbs that the others directed at each other.

"I rather enjoy being used to beat up the other guys," Dillon joked at the debate, sponsored by KSTP-TV and the League of Women Voters.

With millions of dollars spent by outside groups, particularly Democratic or Democratic-leaning groups, Paulsen accused Madia of embracing harsh ads that have falsely suggested Paulsen accepted money from a Las Vegas strip club fundraiser. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is scheduled to be in the Twin Cities on Monday to support Madia, prompting Paulsen to question whether the DFLer will be beholden to the groups that have backed him.

Madia, a lawyer and Iraq War veteran, described himself as a fallen-away Republican who believes in a balanced budget and pay-as-you-go spending.

"Of course I'm not a liberal," he said. "Of course I'm not going to Congress to kow-tow to any one of them."

Paulsen, a Minnesota House member and its former majority leader, came under attack from Madia for supporting extending the Bush tax cuts, including for those who make more than $250,000 a year. Paulsen said letting those cuts expire would cost each taxpayer in the district $2,600 and limit job growth.

Madia supports extending the tax cuts to anyone making less than $250,000 a year. "No one making under $250,000 ought to see a dime in tax increases."

Calling Paulsen "a career politician," Madia pointed to Paulsen's record in the Legislature, bringing up per diem pay increases approved by the House as well as a 2005 partial government shutdown over a DFL-GOP budget dispute that occurred while Paulsen was House majority leader.

Paulsen, who is a business analyst for Target, shot back: "I am not a career politician. I work in the real world."

The three are vying to win a seat that will be left vacant by the retirement of nine-term Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad. The district, the most affluent of Minnesota's eight congressional districts, has long been described as fiscally conservative and socially moderate.

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636