Congressman John Kline and his DFL challenger are finally throwing off some sparks in the last three weeks before Election Day.

The Second District Republican this week is releasing a television ad that seems designed to inoculate him against attack on an issue that could work for opponent Steve Sarvi: the congressman's refusal to seek millions in earmarks for badly needed road projects in his district.

And the two of them have begun a series of debates, which are starting at last to draw public responses from Kline to attacks that Sarvi has been making for months.

During their first debate on Monday, Kline declined to take on Sarvi personally for most of the hour, but in his closing statement quoted from a small-town newspaper editorial describing one Sarvi line of attack as "politics at its worst."

The campaign is following to a large extent the script of the two national parties. Kline is attacking wasteful earmarks and urging off-shore drilling as one means of addressing the nation's energy needs. Sarvi seeks to tie Kline to the mess on Wall Street and to depict him as a loyal follower of President Bush.

But it has some local twists as well.

Kline was one of just a dozen members of Congress to stop seeking earmarks for road projects and the like, arguing that the whole system is corrupt and misguided. Because politics rules, he says, a senior figure like Minnesota's Jim Oberstar can wangle more money for bike paths than a fast-growing district like Kline's will get for highway needs.

To reinforce that message, Kline's new TV ad shows him strolling past huge visual images of what he describes as wasteful pork, such as fancy street signs for Beverly Hills.

But even some Republican officials in his district have questioned Kline's approach, saying his constituents are missing out. Sarvi makes that pitch as well.

"We can build great communities," he told an audience in Chanhassen on Monday during the debate, "but if we can't get to them, what's the point?"

Kline counters that what started out as a small group of anti-earmark pioneers in Congress has now swelled to more than 40, offering real promise of change that could benefit his district in the long run.

Another local twist is the attempt by Sarvi, an Iraq veteran, to question Kline's commitment to caring for veterans, even though Kline is a retired Marine colonel whose son has served in the military. That was Sarvi's line of attack in his own TV ad. He pointed, for instance, to a statement by Kline that he interprets as suggesting an overemphasis on post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans.

That was the issue on which Kline chose Monday to lash out most directly. He quoted from a Sept. 26 editorial in the Faribault Daily News describing the Sarvi attack as taking his comments out of context and amounting to "politics at its worst."

But Sarvi plans to continue pushing the issue, with a visit later this week from Rep. Bob Filner, the San Diego Democrat who chairs the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee, to meet with local veterans groups.

The two do agree on some issues. Neither is altogether at ease with the recent congressional bailout bill, but Kline voted for it and Sarvi says he would have as well. Sarvi is not as eager about either off-shore drilling or nuclear energy plants as his opponent is, but he doesn't oppose either.

Sarvi's hopes are clearly tied to a general desire for change.

"If you like what's been going on for the past six to eight years," he told the audience in Chanhassen, "I'm probably not your guy."

But Kline also attacks the status quo, including by inference his own party -- describing, for instance, any idea of government-run health care as a way to make sure health care is "brought to you by the same people who brought you Katrina," referring to the Bush Administration's much-criticized response to the devastating hurricane on the Gulf Coast.

David Peterson • 952-882-9023