Minnesota's three major U.S. Senate candidates traded barbs and rebutted attacks Friday night in the most spirited debate of the campaign, decrying one another's negative ads, economic policies and approach to governing.

While DFL Party candidate Al Franken portrayed himself as the candidate for the middle class, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman offered his experience and record to claim he knows how to get results. And Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley said that Franken and Coleman are too tied to their respective parties.

The candidates met for their fourth debate since Labor Day and the last one to be televised, with polls showing the race close and volatile.

The debate on Twin Cities Public Television's "Almanac" was unstructured in format and began with a lively exchange over the attack ads each candidate found most unjustified.

Asked what had been the most misrepresented part of his campaign, Coleman said it was the Franken ads chiding him for approving tax breaks for oil companies. In fact, Coleman said, the tax breaks were in a comprehensive bill that boosted renewable energy and won the support of Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Mark Dayton.

"Al may be for things in theory, but in practice ... he says he would've voted no," Coleman said.

Franken, who said his mantra is "Jobs, baby, jobs," said he opposed the $700 billion economic rescue package recently approved by President Bush and Congress, because it didn't cut off bonuses for executives of discredited firms and failed to provide enough relief for homeowners. Coleman, who voted for the bill, sharply disagreed and asked Franken why he waited until after it passed to come out against it.

"I'm going to exercise my independent judgment as senator, and I think Minnesotans expect that ... just like Paul Wellstone did," Franken said.

"Paul Wellstone never would have waited until after the vote to tell you what he thought," Coleman said.

When Barkley took Coleman to task for failing to keep spending in check, Coleman came back at him for his role in Gov. Jesse Ventura's administration, which left office with a deficit. Barkley said that was because of the failure of DFL and Republican legislators to cooperate with Ventura.

That led Franken to point out that President Bush came to office with a record surplus and will leave with a record deficit.

"Norm Coleman wants to make the George Bush economic policies permanent," Franken said. "That's what he wants to do. Understand that. We've seen the results of those policies."

Coleman said that prosperity can't return if taxes go up, as he said Franken proposes.

"I'm not raising taxes," Franken said. Coleman responded that the effect would be the same if some tax breaks are allowed to lapse, as Franken proposes.

"Almanac" host Cathy Wurzer mentioned a recent endorsement of Coleman by Esquire magazine, calling him "a centrist in a right-wing party" and Franken a knee-jerk liberal.

"This is the fundamental issue of the campaign," Coleman said. "The partisan divide is tearing this country apart ... Mr. Franken has a career of tearing people apart, and Mr. Barkley has a career of being on the side."

Franken pointed out that Coleman is running for head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, "the most partisan member of the Senate ... [whose] job is to attack Democratic senators."

Barkley added that Coleman's Senate career sprung from the deepest wells of partisanship. "You were handpicked by Bush and Cheney," he said.

On the other hand, Barkley said, he had helped move key legislation in the eight days the Senate was in session when he was appointed as Wellstone's replacement.

On the war in Iraq, Franken said that the most important job for the United States in the Middle East is to go after Al-Qaida, and Barkley agreed that Afghanistan should be the focus of American military efforts. Coleman said there were strategic advantages to permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, but Franken said he opposed that. "The only way to jumpstart diplomacy is to start leaving," he said.

Franken decried a Coleman ad that accused the DFLer of opposing Medicare prescription drug coverage for senior citizens. Franken said he favors such a program but wanted a bill that would have cut prices further.

Barkley faulted a Democratic ad suggesting he favors privatization of Social Security, but Franken said he had no control over that ad.

An exchange over Social Security followed, with Coleman calling for a special commission to be the architect of reform, while Franken insisted that the retirement program's problems are far in the future. That brought a rebuke from Barkley.

"It's IOUs in the [Social Security] Trust Fund," he said, adding that the real problem was the refusal to talk candidly about Social Security. "We can fix it," he said. "Let's just be honest and do it."

The homestretch

Heading into the final 10 days before the Nov. 4 election, the race has become the most expensive in Minnesota history and is said to be the richest Senate contest in the country. According to the latest figures, Coleman has raised $18 million and has $4 million cash on hand; Franken is only slightly behind, having raised $15.9 million with $2.8 million still in the bank. But Franken reported an impressive $4.4 million raised in the last three-month period, blowing well past Coleman's $1.6 million. Barkley trails far behind in raising money.

That's why the debates are so important for Barkley, who counts on the format's level playing field to help him win over supporters from the other two camps.

The last debate will be held Nov. 2, at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul and broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455