Pawlenty, Hutchinson and Hatch shared contrasting visions in a debate likely seen by 300,000.
In the most-watched debate of the gubernatorial campaign, major-party candidates Sunday night presented sharply contrasting visions of the state's condition and delivered some hard shots at each other over gas taxes, illegal immigration and sex offenders.
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty projected a rosy view of a Minnesota under his leadership coming out of hard budget times with its quality-of-life intact. He portrayed DFLer Mike Hatch and the Independence Party's Peter Hutchinson as "Mr. Doom and Mr. Gloom" who "use me as the pinata in these debates."
Hatch said Pawlenty's budget cuts had violated the sacred principle established by the DFL political godfather Hubert Humphrey to take care of those "in the dawn and the shadows and the twilight of life."
Hatch painted a darker picture of a state economy with too many low-paying jobs and a middle class burdened with rising tuition and property taxes.
Hutchinson, running a dark-horse effort to catch up with opponents who have been tied with 40-some percent support all year long, declared a pox on both larger parties.
He said viewers would find "proof positive" that "politics is broken" when the debate ended and they were subjected to an onslaught of negative ads in which "the two parties are tearing each other apart."
The debate on KSTP-TV (Ch. 5), sponsored by the League of Women Voters, was the fifth between the three. But it could have decisive impact. It was the first of only two debates that will be televised and the only one on commercial television, and thus likely will have the largest audience. Organizers estimated it would be seen by about 300,000 voters.
The debate at times resembled a three-way, ever-changing tag-team wrestling match. Although it was usually Hatch and Hutchinson against Pawlenty, Hatch was roughed up by the other two over his statement that even though he does not support a gas tax increase, he would sign one into law if the Legislature passed it.
Pawlenty called Hatch a "duck-bob-weave" candidate and said that "you can't campaign against it and say you'd sign it."
Hutchinson, who faults Pawlenty for falling behind in transportation funding and is the only candidate who supports a gas tax increase, told Hatch that "you can't be for it and against it at the same time."
Hatch said the issue is being "thoroughly vetted" by legislative candidates in the 2006 campaigns and that it would be "arrogant to veto it."
Sparks also flew also over recent TV ads in which Pawlenty accuses Hutchinson of being too "liberal" and Hatch of being too evasive on the question of whether to give illegal immigrants resident tuition rates at state colleges.
A Hatch ad in response accused Pawlenty of worsening illegal immigration by failing to enforce labor laws that would discourage employers from hiring illegal immigrants. Pawlenty denied that.
Hutchinson strongly defended his support of a proposal to grant resident tuition rates to anybody who had spent several years in state high schools and said Pawlenty was "dead wrong" to turn away ambitious and smart newcomers to the state.
Clash over TV ad
Pawlenty and Hatch clashed head-on over a DFL ad, panned by media observers as unfair and sensational, that claims the Pawlenty administration put dangerous sex offenders in nursing homes.
Pressed as to whether he believed Pawlenty really was responsible for the sex offenders at a Minneapolis home in 2004, Hatch said he believed that budget cuts forced state officials to make that decision and "Yes, I do believe the Pawlenty administration is accountable."