For the eighth time since last month's primary election, the three men who would be Minnesota's next governor squared off Friday in a debate, this time getting together at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

The debate, broadcast by Minnesota Public Radio, was held at Carousel Park on the State Fair grounds and featured Republican Tom Emmer, Democrat Mark Dayton and Independence Party nominee Tom Horner.

Seemingly back-to-back debates have been a notable feature in this year's contest to succeed Gov. Tim Pawlenty, occurring more often they have in recent election cycles. And as many as two dozen more could occur between now and the November election.

 The debates provide a free public platform for all three candidates, giving a visibility boost to Emmer and Horner, who are far less well-known than Dayton. And in past campaigns, they have provided a crucial boost, as they did to former Gov. Jesse Ventura during the 1998 race.

 

First, the state's looming budget deficit, estimated at nearly $6 billion in the next two-year budget cycle.

Emmer continued to restate his assertion that the deficit isn't all that it seems to be, given the fact that the state is projected to spend 7 percent to 8 percent more than it currently does. "Government needs to budget," he said.

Dayton once again slammed Emmer for lacking specificity on his budget plans, saying increased taxes and budget-cutting are necessary: "These are unpopular realities that one of us is going to inherit."

For his part, Horner repeated his assertion that the state needs more revenue from selectively increased taxes, primarily because the current legislature "dug a deeper hole ... by spending money it didn't have."

 

The session was not exactly a well-behaved Almanac segment on Friday night, with partisans cheering and hooting at the candidates' answers -- and the candidates shouting over each other. "Is what we're doing right now working?" Emmer demanded, to a resounding "NOOOO" from members of the crowd. When Dayton pointed out that the recession began under former President George W. Bush, he was lustily booed.

 

Asked about Pawlenty's decision this week to forego millions of dollars in federal grants from the new national health care law, Emmer said he wasn't clear on the details, but Dayton and Horner slammed the decision. Dayton said Pawlenty is more concerned with running for president, adding that he "has abandoned Minnesota's best interest ...it's senseless." Answering an unrelated question, Emmer summed up his underlying philosophy: "More government is not the answer."

Dealing with a traditionally sacred cow, the candidates were asked whether they'd consider shuttering some of the state's high-education education institutions, only Dayton flatly said he wouldn't. Horner said a new University of Minnesota president, a new state college chancellor and the next governor "need to put everything on the table" to determine whether there is duplication within the system. Emmer suggested that a more relevant question is whether every institution needs to offer "a full menu" of courses and majors. 
  

Confronted with a question asking whether they would sign into law a bill that would toughen anti-bullying policies in the state's schools, Horner and Dayton flatly answered "yes." Emmer said he would "have to say what [the bill] looks like," adding that "bullying is a serious issue."

 

Increased taxes, anyone? While both Horner and Dayton bickered over the specifics and fairness of each other's proposal to increase taxes, Emmer said flatly that he is "not going to raise taxes on anyone."

No surprise here: When all three were asked if they could work with legislators of opposing parties, they said of course they could. When Emmer said he works "very well" with DFLers, he was greeted by hoots. "Somebody laughing?" Emmer asked.

Given 30 seconds each to wrap up the hour-long session, they boiled down their pitch to voters.

Dayton: The election "is about the future of Minnesota -- it's about your future." He cited his "35 years [of] commitment to public service," saying he knows "how to make government work better for Minnesota."

Emmer: "You've got a clear choice on Nov. 2" and that voters face a stark choice, between "the way we've been doing things for several decades or do things in a new way."

Horner: "It's a clear choice: Who do you trust to take Minnesota forward?" He said he would deliver voters "a smarter, more efficient government."