Welcome to Minnesota's version of Clash of the Titans. In one corner is Sen. Norm Coleman, the Republican incumbent and former St. Paul mayor. In the other corner is Democrat Al Franken, the satirist/activist with the celebrity name recognition.
Most scorecards have this fight even as the bell rings for the final round -- yet lurking in a third corner is Dean Barkley, the socially liberal, fiscally conservative Independence Party candidate who, despite a campaign budget that only recently reached the $100,000 mark, is polling at close to 20 percent. (Coleman and Franken are each expected to spend more than $20 million).
Franken, when he met with the Post-Bulletin's editorial board, didn't pull his punches.
"I don't like what I've seen -- the corruption, the cynicism, misleading us into a war that was a terrible mistake," he said. "The current senator is part of the problem. He did the bidding of the Bush administration, but now that he's seen where the wind is blowing, suddenly, he's a moderate."
Coleman, on the other hand, was in less of a fighting mood when he spoke with the editorial board. "This race isn't about what you're against," he said. "It's about what you're for. It's what you get done. It's about providing solutions."
In keeping with these statements, Coleman has pulled his negative television ads (although he can't control the GOP-sponsored ads), and told us "I'd rather win this way, or lose while still feeling good about myself."
Barkley saw things differently. "Norm pulled his negative ads because he realized that he was driving people over to me," he told the editorial board. "I think I'm drawing a bit more support away from Coleman than from Franken, but given the current disapproval ratings that both of them have, it's obvious that there's a huge group of Minnesotans who don't like either of my opponents."
Ideologically, the differences between Franken and Coleman are enormous but somewhat predictable. Franken believes in a government that provides a substantial safety net for those who encounter hard times, while Coleman prefers a government that stays out of the way as much as possible, trusting that the free market and America's entrepreneurial ethic will carry us through most difficulties.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in their views on health care.
Franken advocates universal health care, and for children under 18 he promotes a single-payer system similar to Medicare. "Our problems are rooted within the drug industry and the insurance industry," he said. "Right now, the insurance company is between us and the doctor."
Coleman said Franken's fix won't work. "Health care is a right, an ethical requirement of a developed nation, but that doesn't mean the government has to provide it," he said. "What we need is portability of insurance across state lines, and people need to be able to choose the kind of insurance coverage they want to pay for, instead of being forced to pay for expensive coverage they don't need or want."
Barkley agrees with Coleman's ideas about insurance competition, but he'd introduce one more competitor. "Before we go to a single-payer system, let's allow all Americans to buy coverage through Medicare and let it compete with the big insurance companies," he said. "Let's find out if the government can really be a more efficient provider of health coverage."
Concerning the financial crisis, all three candidates stressed the long-term necessity of energy independence, which can only happen through investment in alternative fuels. But to provide more immediate financial relief, Coleman praised the $700 billion bailout package and has outlined a variety of steps the government should follow to reduce the national deficit, including a line-item veto to eliminate earmarks and enforcement of so-called "Pay-Go" rules that mandate spending cuts to balance out any spending increases by the government.
Franken's economic plan focuses on eliminating tax breaks for corporations, providing tax relief for the middle class, making loans available to small businesses and putting a freeze on foreclosures, with loans being re-set to reflect current housing values.
Barkley's ideas on fixing the economy were decidedly different -- and frankly, rather refreshing.
"It's time for us to take a long, hard look at our priorities, and given that military spending is the second-largest category in our budget, that's a good place to start," he said. "Who are we afraid of? Who is going to invade us? Do we still need to maintain bases in Japan and Germany? Reducing the size of our military could make college affordable for a lot more of our kids."
But concerning our current wars, Barkley acknowledges that the U.S. will need to strengthen its military presence in Afghanistan, and must finish the job in Iraq because "We broke it, so we have to fix it."
Coleman, although not declaring "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, says the conflict is heading toward a good resolution. "The surge worked," he said. "The debate now is about how do we get to the point where we can get our troops out, or into a secondary role."
Franken was more blunt, implying that a "successful" conclusion to the war won't excuse the outright deception that created it. "There were no WMDs, no ties to al Qaida in Iraq, but the administration wanted to go to war," he said. "Now, Iraq has become the No. 1 jihadist recruiting tool in the world. But having said that, we need to give our troops all the support they need and deserve, both in Iraq and after they return."
A tough call
This endorsement decision prompted more debate and disagreement among our editorial board members than any other race we considered. Coleman has experience and the promise of seniority on his side, and despite valid claims that he usually voted with the Bush administration, he has a national reputation as a moderate Republican -- which would serve him well in a Democrat-controlled Congress.
Franken brings passion, a fascinating intellect and the promise of change. We admire his stance on providing health care for every child, and support his views on eliminating tax breaks and loopholes for big oil companies and corporations. We can't, however, get past the fact that Franken, a Minnesota native who returned to the state only recently after more than 30 years away to run for the Senate, would be an extremely liberal voice in the U.S. Senate. Judging from what he's said and written in the past about conservatives, we doubt he'd be interested in compromising with them. We don't believe his highly antagonistic approach toward the other major party would serve Minnesota well.
As for Barkley, we only wish that more Minnesotans had the opportunity to spend an hour with him. His candor, pragmatism and Everyman qualities are evident, and although he lacks Franken's charisma and Coleman's polish, we encourage all voters to read up on him.
Even if he doesn't win, we hope some of his ideas will find their way into the mainstream.
We endorse Sen. Norm Coleman for another term in the U.S. Senate. We applaud his opposition to drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and we admire the fact that he's played a key role in creating a new national energy policy. We also are impressed with his efforts to make sure that Minnesota's soldiers have all the help they need when they return from service overseas.
In a second term, however, we expect more from Coleman. In our interview with him, we saw a quieter man, a somewhat humbler Norm Coleman than we'd seen before. One who declared that our current crisis demands leaders who put ideology aside to get things done.
He needs to act on that principal. He told us "Health care is a right," and he needs to pursue legislation to make it happen. He told us he opposes unfunded mandates for education, so we expect him to be a major player in a much-needed overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Coleman has had six years to figure out what's wrong with Washington. There's no reason he can't play a key role in fixing it.