With less than a week before the election, Republicans and Democrats argued Wednesday over whether a DFLer mailer had stirred anti-Catholic sentiment.
As the two sides traded accusations, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, DFLer Mark Dayton and the Independence Party's Tom Horner ended the day with a forum that offered one of the last chances for public debate, but yielded no major stumbles or breakthrough moments.
Earlier in the day, Republican leaders called on Dayton to denounce a DFL mailer in a legislative race that some conservatives deemed anti-Catholic.
The mailer, sent by the state DFL Party to thousands of voters in Senate District 40, which includes Burnsville and Bloomington, featured what appears to be a man in a black shirt and clerical collar carrying a black book. On his shirt is a photo-shopped button that says "Ignore the Poor." On the other side, the mailer criticizes Republican candidate Dan Hall, a minister, for remaining silent as Pawlenty imposed budget cuts. He is challenging DFL state Sen. John Doll of Burnsville.
"This is in-your-face anti-Catholicism," said state Sen. Amy Koch, R-Buffalo. "It' a new low in Minnesota."
Dayton quickly tamped down the outrage, agreeing that at least part of the mailer went too far.
"I believe the brochure's picture showing a man of the cloth is inappropriate," Dayton said in a statement. "I believe that it is inappropriate to bring religion into a campaign as this image and others do."
He added, however, that the mailer was right to point out that many leaders of the faith community have disagreed with Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's cuts to health care programs for low-income residents.
"The facts are that members of Minnesota's faith community have been leaders in the fight to stop Governor Pawlenty from denying health care to the poorest and sickest Minnesotans," Dayton said.
"Republicans have taken the picture out of context and claimed the DFL has taken out an anti-Catholic advertisement," said DFL Party Chairman Brian Melendez, noting that leaders of many Christian faiths wear collars. "That's absolutely not true. There's nothing anti-Catholic about this piece."
The leaders from the Catholic Defense League called on Melendez to apologize.
"The images that are portrayed are definitely Catholic images and cannot be construed any other way," said Dick Houck, president of the group. "It's totally objectionable and we are demanding an apology to the many Catholics who are offended by this, and non-Catholics, as well."
About a month ago, the Catholic Church sent out about 400,000 DVDs to parishioners that spoke out against same-sex marriage.
Melendez said the party's recent mailer was not a retaliation.
The candidates ended the day with an hourlong job interview-style forum at Macalester College.
The candidates talked about their experiences as leaders, their shortcomings and how they might serve as the state's chief executive.
Emmer said one of his faults is that he's always running at full-throttle.
"My pace is 150 miles per hour all the time," he said. "If there's anything I could do, I'd pace that a little more."
Horner said one of his biggest mistakes came when he was a staffer for former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger.
"I jumped to the wrong conclusion about a staffer and didn't trust the person as much as I should have," he said.
What asked what his hardest lesson had been, Dayton didn't flinch.
"I am an alcoholic," said Dayton, who disclosed his struggles with alcohol and depression last winter. "It's required me to be disciplined and it's required me to recognize my shortcomings and it's given me a great connection to people around the state."
Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288