Longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and his GOP challenger, Michelle Fischbach, agreed in their first debate Thursday that the state's corona­virus restrictions went too far, but the candidates differed sharply over President Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic.

Both candidates were asked in a WCCO Radio debate about Trump's admission in a recorded interview with journalist and author Bob Woodward that he downplayed the gravity of the coronavirus as it began to spread even as he became aware of its gravity.

Fischbach repeatedly said that she had not read the book, which won't be released until next week. Asked if she listened to the recordings of Trump that were part of this week's news coverage of the revelation, Fischbach said she hadn't and insisted that the country's response to the virus has been "very strong."

Peterson said the Trump administration could have done more to tell Americans what it knew at the time.

"My question was why, if you knew all this stuff, why would you do this?" Peterson said. "The best thing you can do in a government is level with the people, tell them the truth, give the people some credit. They can handle it."

Peterson, a centrist Blue Dog Democrat, has represented the largely rural Seventh Congressional District since 1990, even as it went overwhelmingly in President Donald Trump's favor in 2016. His challenge by Fisch­bach, a former lieutenant governor and state senator, has since been deemed a tossup by multiple election trackers.

As she has since declaring her candidacy last year, Fischbach attempted to link Peterson to what she called the "socialist agenda" of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In response, Peterson pointed to his vote against impeaching Trump last year and his stewardship of the influential House Agriculture Committee.

"There isn't a meeting that goes on in agriculture in Washington that it doesn't start until I get in the room — and it doesn't end until I leave," Peterson said.

Thursday's 90-minute debate zoomed in on issues key to rural Minnesota: farming, the environment and, as elsewhere, responding to the health and economic effects of the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic.

Fischbach is trying to unseat one of Congress' last remaining Democrats who still manages to net A-plus ratings from the National Rifle Association and opposes abortion.

"Minnesota's Seventh District deserves a strong conservative voice in Congress, and we need to make sure that rural Minnesota moves forward into the future," Fisch­bach said.

Peterson insisted, "I do not see myself as a partisan; I see myself as an American."

Both Peterson and Fischbach argued that Gov. Tim Walz's emergency restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic went too far. Peterson said it made little sense to have some of the same emergency orders in effect in places in rural Minnesota that don't have the same infection rate as elsewhere and that adjoining states like North and South Dakota have more lax policies. Fischbach called for getting "everything reopened, and we need to make sure it stays open."

Fischbach defended Trump's trade war with China and said the COVID-19 outbreak and China's "coverup" was a "major setback" to improving relations. Peterson agreed that China had been a problem but said working to apply pressure alongside allied countries would have been a better approach than engaging in back-and-forth tariffs.

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755

Twitter: @smontemayor