ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — After weeks of TV ads focused on Medicare, Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack and Democrat Rick Nolan got into it Tuesday over jobs, regulations and the unpopularity of Congress in their first debate in Minnesota's most watched House race.
The first-term incumbent and Nolan, a former congressman, faced each other before a Duluth audience that had been warned against outbursts, two years after a raucous forum pitting Cravaack against longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar. The candidates differed sharply on issues such as taxes and regulation, with Nolan calling Cravaack a "big spender" on defense who has neglected domestic priorities such as transportation, and Cravaack saying Nolan represents an "antiquated" style of big government.
Cravaack's re-election bid in the northeastern 8th District so far has drawn more than $4 million in spending by national parties and their allies. Democrats consider the seat a top prospect, while Republicans are defending their man in territory that had long been considered out of their reach.
Nolan accused the current Congress of laziness, saying members don't put in enough hours in Washington and take long recesses back home.
Cravaack hit back by noting that Nolan voted to raise his own pay four times when he served from 1975 to 1981. Cravaack also accused Nolan of missing 30 percent of his votes, a charge that Nolan disputed as "cherry picking."
Nolan said he skipped trivial votes when meeting with constituents but didn't miss the important ones, and claimed Congress worked harder than it does now. He said he needed the raises to stay in Congress and maintain homes in Minnesota and Washington.
"We cast a heck of a lot more votes than your Congress is casting," he said.
"Again, Congressman, you missed 30 percent of your votes," Cravaack said.
"No, I didn't. Stop saying that," Nolan said.
Cravaack accused the Democratic-led Senate of holding up legislation passed by the Republican-controlled House.
"The congressman is half right when he says we have a dysfunctional Congress. We have a functional House," Cravaack said.
When asked how they would help the middle class, Cravaack said an "overbearing" tax code and regulations are keeping small businesses from hiring. Nolan said Cravaack's support of tax breaks hasn't helped small businesses because the middle class is hurting.
"It's not tax breaks — it's demand for your products," he said. "We've got this thing upside down."
On mining, the candidates seemed more in concert. Both agreed on the importance of getting proposed precious metals mines started on the Iron Range.
"I see a future in the 8th District of Minnesota where people are moving here for jobs," said Cravaack, who said he has been pushing to get the Polymet project near Hoyt Lakes going.
Nolan agreed that the permitting process is "long overdue."
But Cravaack challenged Nolan's assertion that environmental regulations create jobs, such as employment for those who make smokestack scrubbers and catalytic converters.
Cravaack also brought up his amendment requiring American steel to be used in federal projects, part of a transportation bill President Obama signed into law in July. Nolan mentioned his endorsement from the United Steelworkers union.
The candidates had a more measured exchange about Medicare compared to the attack lines airing in campaign commercials.
Nolan said Cravaack voted to "end Medicare as we know it," calling the program an entitlement and a "sacred promise" and vowing to eliminate waste to keep it solvent.
Cravaack said the Republican plan would save Medicare from bankruptcy, and anyone over 55 wouldn't see any changes. Those under 55 would be able to pick between subsidies to buy private insurance or a version of the current program. He said doing nothing would be a "dereliction of duty."
As the debate wrapped up, Nolan reached out his hand to Cravaack. They shook.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.