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 health care, their voting records and who best represents the area.

“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.

The rivals are battling to represent northeastern Minnesota’s expansive 8th 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 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.

The two differed over the impact of the federal stimulus program and whether they would repeal President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. Cravaack said he would scrap the program, which he deemed too expensive and complex. Nolan supports the health care plan, saying it covers millions of uninsured residents and prevents people with pre-existing conditions from being denied coverage.

The two candidates used nearly every question jab at one another.

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

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

Nolan accused Cravaack of trying to portray himself as a friend of working men and women while taking money from 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 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.

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 hour-long debate hosted by Debate Minnesota.

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 who want the region to remain a pristine recreation area and 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 the desire to protect the environment while having a thriving and sustainable economy.

Cravaack noted that Nolan helped created the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness decades ago, preventing any development, mining or motorized vehicles from the park, a move which 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 wilderness area, which helped turn the area into a tourist hub.

The two have only one more scheduled debate before the election.

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