MORGAN, MINN. - Gov. Mark Dayton says he's been known to pop the occasional pill during meetings with state lawmakers -- antacids.

The governor was at Farmfest, the state's traditional staging area for politicians to woo the farm vote. But it was pharmaceuticals, not agriculture, that dominated Tuesday's debate at this year's gathering at the Gilfillan Estates, southeast of Redwood Falls, after a state senator who is running for Congress accused the governor of a different kind of pill-popping.

"When you sit across from him and you watch him pop 15 to 16 pills when you're having a meeting, it's scary," Republican Mike Parry, who is in a contested primary for the First District congressional seat, told an audience at a Brown County fundraiser Monday night.

On Tuesday, at Farmfest for a candidate forum, Parry refused to apologize, although he admitted it might not have been 15 pills. He provided no evidence to back up his claim and admitted that he couldn't recall when, exactly, the incident happened.

"I was there. I saw it," Parry told reporters after the candidate forum. "I saw it. I said it. I was there."

Dayton, who was at Farmfest to deliver the keynote address, punched back hard, calling Parry's claim "a lie" and "gutter politics."

"It's six days before a primary that he's probably going to lose, so he's desperate," said Dayton, who couldn't recall sitting down to breakfast with Parry this year, let alone downing a handful of pills. "Since he's lying about the situation, he could say we met on the moon and it wouldn't have any less credibility."

Top Republicans who have logged long hours at the negotiating table with Dayton appeared dubious of Parry's claim.

"The only thing I ever saw him pop was peanut M&Ms," said former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, a lead lawmaker on the Vikings stadium, said he never saw the governor swallow a a single pill during the dozens of hours he spent with Dayton in stadium talks.

"I have not seen anything like that," Lanning said.

As the day wore on, Parry conceded that while he might not have seen Dayton take 15 or 16 pills, "it was more than just a few" and "they weren't M&M peanuts."

Dayton disclosed years ago that he takes medication to treat depression, as do an estimated 27 million Americans.

"Fortunately, Minnesotans showed themselves far more advanced than Mr. Parry in electing me and giving me a chance to serve," Dayton said Tuesday. "I know that that condition does not affect my performance as governor. I also take medicine as needed for stomach acid. Sometimes when I'm meeting with legislators, I need more of them."

When pressed, Parry declined to say whether he was trying to accuse the governor of being an addict, or unfit to govern.

Later in the day, his campaign released this statement: "I have great sympathy for those who struggle with addiction and depression. Governor Dayton has been upfront about facing these challenges and confirmed today that he takes medication."

This isn't the first time Dayton and Parry have sparred or the first time the Waseca senator has made controversial accusations. Late last year, as Parry ramped up his congressional campaign, he sent out a fundraiser leaflet that said unions bought Dayton's election and were getting payback. Dayton wrote to Parry in outrage, saying the letter is "untrue, wrongly malign[ing] my character and integrity."

Three years ago, just before he was elected to the Senate, Parry tweeted a comparison between Democrats and pedophiles. He followed that up with one that called President Obama a "Power Hungry Arrogant Black Man."

He later apologized for those comments, noting in a news interview last month that "you've got to be responsible about what you do."

Parry's latest remarks overshadowed what had been billed as a premier draw on the event's first day: a First Congressional District forum featuring Parry; his GOP primary rival, former legislator Allen Quist, and the incumbent they hope to beat, Democratic Rep. Tim Walz.

Asked later about Parry's accusation, Quist replied, "I wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole."

The three-day event is the largest agricultural gathering in the state, drawing more than 40,000 visitors and featuring everything from the latest in satellite-guided tractors to ag-focused candidate forums and watermelon feeds.

In his closing remarks at the forum, Parry said he wanted to bring a spirit of statesmanship to Congress and said national politics was too divided by bitter partisanship.

Asked how that stance aligned with his accusation against Dayton, Parry said, "I've never been one to be politically correct all the time ... For you not to come forward and be open and honest, that's not being statesmanlike."

Although the DFL Party on Tuesday asked Parry to apologize, Dayton said he was more concerned about Parry's other claim -- also delivered at the Monday fundraiser -- that Dayton had tried to cut funding for veterans programs.

"Personal attacks don't really bother me," Dayton said.

"Misrepresenting my record matters a lot more to me, because that's what people should properly judge me on. If I fainted every time somebody said something nasty, I'd be in the ground."

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049 Rachel E. Stassen-Burger • 651-925-5046