MANKATO (AP) -- Five DFLers who hope to be their party's nominee to face Republican Sen. Rod Grams spent more time in their first debate promoting themselves and criticizing Grams than attacking each other.
U.S. Rep. David Minge, who helped organize Tuesday night's debate at Bethany Lutheran College, had warned the candidates and other Democrats their chances of defeating the conservative first-termer will suffer if they wait to rally around a candidate until late in the campaign.
''All of us are highly qualified,'' said Dr. Steven Miles, a physician and professor at the University of Minnesota. ''Any of us would be a better senator than Rod Grams, who puts ideology ahead of people.''
State Sen. Jerry Janezich of Chisholm said, ''Six years from now, if I'm as inept as he is, send me home as I intend to send him home.''
Trial lawyer Mike Ciresi said: ''Is Rod Grams known as the education senator? Is Senator Rod Grams known as the health senator? Is Senator Rod Grams known as the farm senator? No. Does he lead anything? No.''
Former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug said, ''I've really got the fire in the belly to take on and beat Rod Grams.''
State Sen. Steve Kelley of Hopkins said Grams has been unable to pass legislation to ensure Minnesotans get the same Medicare benefits as people in many other states.
''The fact that we have a Republican senator when Republicans are in charge of Congress who can't get that done is another reason we need to get rid of Senator Rod Grams,'' Kelley said.
A few other themes emerged during the night.
Lillehaug was worried about corporate consolidation, saying the mega-mergers of recent years are hurting average Minnesotans, from farmers to people buying high-priced prescription drugs.
Janezich, a bar owner, portrayed himself as the only working-class candidate and someone with strong empathy for people with low and moderate incomes.
Kelley sounded more upbeat themes, saying the booming economy is helping people across the economic spectrum and that the end of the Cold War shows that America can bring about positive changes in the world.
Ciresi, who represented the state and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota in their successful lawsuit against the tobacco industry, focused on investing federal surpluses in a strong education system. He also said his skills as an advocate would be crucial in the Senate.
Miles cited a list of international treaties he believes the United States should sign. His suggested changes in farm policy included lengthening loans to farmers and focusing subsidy programs on family farms.
The only time the candidates didn't rush to speak first was when David Thompson, dean of students at Bethany and a strong abortion opponent, asked: ''In an abortion, what is it that's being aborted? ... Is it a person?''
Moderator Gary Eichten of Minnesota Public Radio had to solicit responses. Each of the five, all of whom support abortion rights, eventually said they didn't know the answer but didn't believe government knew either. And they didn't believe government bodies should impose their opinions on doctors and their patients.
Two candidates who are expected to enter the race weren't invited because they haven't officially announced: former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny and the former director of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, Rebecca Yanisch.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.