Given their first chance to score points head-on in their primary election battle, DFL gubernatorial candidates instead trained their fire Sunday on newly endorsed Republican candidate Tom Emmer in a debate on environmental issues.

Emmer was invited but did not show for the event. But former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton and former House leader Matt Entenza, both DFLers, made sure that he wasn't forgotten.

"I think it's instructive who's not here today, the endorsed candidate of the Republican Party," Dayton said. "Environmental protection should be and used to be in Minnesota a bipartisan or nonpartisan concern, shared by everyone."

It was almost easy to overlook the fact that before DFLers can sink their claws into Emmer, they first face a contest of their own in the August primary that includes party-endorsed Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the House speaker.

Rob Hahn and Tom Horner, contenders for the Independence Party endorsement Saturday at the party convention in Bloomington, joined the three DFLers for a debate sponsored by Minnesota Environmental Partnership at the State Fairgrounds.

Kelliher left the debate after 40 minutes to attend the annual MayDay parade in south Minneapolis. Independence Party candidate businessman John Uldrich did not participate.

About 200 to 300 people attended the two-hour forum, which featured videotaped questions from Minnesotans.

Entenza turned one of the questions, about protecting water quality in Lake Superior, into a shot at Emmer.

"Tom Emmer, the Republican candidate who I wish was here today but apparently chose that he wasn't going to make it, is opposed to a government role in helping with a new sustainable energy future," he said.

Later Entenza noted that Emmer was "part of a radical group that has consistently opposed transit."

And Dayton criticized Emmer for opposing local government aid, the kind of funding that he said can be used to protect North Shore communities against environmental harm.

David FitzSimmons, Emmer's campaign manager, said the candidate was attending his son's first communion. Emmer, he said, is an avid outdoorsman who believes that the private sector generally does a better job than government of protecting the environment.

"Prosperity brings good environmental stewardship," FitzSimmons said.

Different shades of green

The candidates drew clear distinctions between the DFL and Independence parties on what the state should do to protect the environment. While Dayton, Entenza and Kelliher unabashedly argued for strong government measures, Hahn and Horner backed a more limited role.

Horner declared that the state must be smart and innovative in prioritizing its tasks, saying that while the environment is important, it isn't the only challenge at a time of rising deficits and falling test scores.

"If we try to do everything, you might end up doing nothing," said Horner, a public relations executive and former staffer to former Republican U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger.

And Hahn, a small-newspaper publisher, spoke repeatedly about sharing "personal responsibility" for the environment, adding that "we can't have a government mandate for everything."

He was the only candidate who drew hissing from the crowd when he said that he would lift the state's moratorium on nuclear power.

Kelliher, who said she learned about conservation on her parents' farm, called herself "a proven, effective leader" who can implement policies that protect the environment and create jobs.

Dayton blasted the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency under Gov. Tim Pawlenty for what he said was a failure to combat polluters, calling it "the Minnesota Pollution Cooperation Agency."

The debate was largely respectful, but the candidates couldn't resist the occasional poke at each other. In a dig at Horner, Entenza said that "Republican-lite doesn't cut it for Minnesota."

"If they're taking shots at you, they're paying attention to you," Horner replied. "So thank you, Matt, for the compliment."

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455