In a vigorous and meaty debate, U.S. Senate candidates jousted on Sunday over the nation's financial crisis, war policy, deficit spending, energy and even the tenor of their attacks in the first three-way engagement of the general election.

The threat to the nation's economy dominated the night, with DFL challenger Al Franken saying the mammoth bailout package that passed Congress last week would not fix the problem. He blamed the crisis on the Bush administration's push for deregulation. The pressure to pass a bailout, he said, "reminded me of the rush to war."

Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, who voted for the package, acknowledged that it "doesn't solve the economic problems" of what he called "the most challenging times I've seen in my years of public service." But he said that failing to act would have invited disaster and that Franken's position would only have made matters worse.

"It's not enough to sit on the sidelines and criticize," Coleman said. "In the end, it's about protecting Minnesotans."

Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley got in some of the hardest shots of the night in his first pairing with his opponents, saying the Coleman had made a "trillion-dollar mistake" in voting for the Iraq war and made a second trillion dollar mistake in supporting the bailout package.

"How many more trillion-dollar mistakes do we have to put up with?" Barkley asked.

The debate, held in the gymnasium of the University Center in Rochester, marked the first of five meetings among the three candidates and offered a substantive alternative to the incendiary ads that have dominated the race for months.

Throughout the evening, Coleman defended his six-year career in the Senate while characterizing Franken as an intemperate talker rather than a doer. Coleman said that a Medicare senior prescription benefit he supported that also prohibited drug company negotiation was less than optimal, but millions of seniors now have drug coverage because of it.

Franken linked Coleman's votes to campaign donations Coleman has taken from oil, drug and insurance interests over the years, reinforcing a line he has developed in his ads, that Coleman is a tool of corporate interests.

Barkley came out with possibly the toughest prescription of the night on remedies for the nation's ailing economy. The first bill he would propose, he said, "would be a four-year spending cap."

Volatile race

The economic concerns that now dominate the race may help explain apparent volatility in the electorate, visible in recent polls that are starkly at odds with one another.

A new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll, published Saturday, showed Franken with a clear lead over Coleman, 43 percent to 34 percent, with Barkley at 18 percent. But a Survey USA poll released on Friday showed nearly the opposite result: Coleman 43, Franken 33 and Barkley at 19 percent.

While differing on the rescue package, all three candidates cited the search for energy independence as central to the broader economic challenge facing the nation.

Franken called, as he has before, for an "Apollo Project" approach to developing alternative energy and urged that wind turbines and other equipment essential to new technologies should be manufactured domestically. "We've squandered eight years" on these issues, he said.

Coleman agreed, emphasizing a "do it all" approach that includes renewed oil drilling. But he added that the rescue package Franken opposed included various investment tax credits for alternative energies.

"What's important is the difference between talk and action," he said.

Barkley insisted that controlling federal deficits as well as "energy independence in the next five years" is essential to restoring economic health. He called the deficit "financial child abuse."

In the midst of one of the hardest-edged political races ever in Minnesota, the candidates were also called on the incivility that has marked this race. But Franken and Coleman defended the ads that have ripped at one another, saying that they are simply holding one another accountable.

In his one deadpan moment of the night, Franken said that his ads had focused on Coleman's record, "so of course they're negative." Coleman said that Franken's career "is his record," and that questions of temperament and judgment were fair game. Barkley said that while the ads might dismay voters, he selfishly hoped they'd continue.

"You've been driving people to me, so keep doing it," he advised Coleman and Barkley.

Four more Senate debates are scheduled before Election Day.

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288