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MinnPost - "Third District debate: Independence Party candidate is front and center"

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MinnPost - "Third District debate: Independence Party candidate is front and center"

At a three-way debate last night, Erik Paulsen, the Republican candidate for Congress from Minnesota's Third District, said he would vote against the big bailout package for the financial markets now moving through Congress. His opponents, Democrat Ashwin Madia and David Dillon of the Independence Party, both said the deal stinks, but they would support it because the alternatives are too horrible to risk.

"I wouldn't be supporting it," said Paulsen, a state representative from Eden Prairie, because it leaves the taxpayers on the hook for too much money to cover bad loans. Paulsen also blamed the creation of the credit crisis on inaction "by the Democrats who control Congress," which elicited a minor gasp from the audience.

"I support it, but I'm not happy about it," Madia, an attorney and Iraq veteran, said the of the bailout package. The country has no choice, he said, because it has to try to "contain the virus" that the bad loans have injected into the economy.

The debate, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and held in Bet Shalom, a Hopkins synagogue, featured a race for an open seat to replace the retiring Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad. It is widely rated a toss-up. The suburban Third District curves around Minneapolis on the north, west and south.

'Iran is not a threat'
Paulsen took a shot at Madia for saying in an earlier debate during the DFL endorsement campaign that "Iran is not a threat." Madia replied that, as a Marine who served in Iraq, he doesn't call a nation a "threat" unless he thinks it is a situation requiring military attack.

Madia gigged Paulsen for several votes he cast as a Minnesota state representative, all designed to make Paulsen look either like an extreme social conservative or as a tool of special interests.

For example, Madia said Paulsen had voted in favor of the teaching of "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution in Minnesota public schools, and had support amending the Minnesota Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Paulsen replied that this was a "complete mischaracterization" of his votes. He said he voted only to allow Minnesota school districts the option of teaching "intelligent design," and that he didn't "focus on" or "speak on" the same-sex marriage amendment. Although he ultimately acknowledged that he had voted for the amendment, he said "I have never focused on issues that turn off swing voters."

Paulsen also accused Madia of "taking his votes out of context." Madia challenged him to put the votes in proper context. Paulsen didn't reply.

Neither Paulsen nor Madia ever criticized nor emphasized areas of disagreement with Dillon. This reflects Dillon's role in Minnesota's unusual tripartisan system. Dems and Repubs often cozy up to the Independencites.

Dillon sat physically between the two, denouncing them both as "a professional politician and a professional politician wannabe," indicating that he agreed or disagreed with one or the other of them on various issues. For example, after Paulsen's awkward I-voted-for-it, but I-didn't-speak-for-it and I-don't-emphasize-it moment on social issues, Dillon weighed in, more in sadness than in anger, saying that "Erik has come out of the right wing of the Republican Party" and now "he's running away from his record."

Dillon, who says he grew up in a DFL family, then became a Republican because of Democrats' tendency to favor too much government, said he was driven from the GOP because of its obsession with right-wing social issues (Terry Schiavo was mentioned), and that "we ought to be long past the point of putting a stick in Charles Darwin's spokes" (a reference to the teaching of "intelligent design").

Smart and funny
As he did in the first debate of the race in August, Dillon may well have stolen the show. He comes across as smart and occasionally funny. While discussing the big bailout, which is sometimes justified by the logic that companies like the insurance giant AIG are so big that the nation can't allow them to fail, Dillon got the second-biggest laugh of the night with this line:

"If a company is too big to fail, it's probably too big."

Dillon, who inherited a family printing business and often spoke from the point of view of a small businessman, said a more vigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws might keep firms from gigantism.

If you're wondering what got the biggest laugh of the night, it also went to Dillon while discussing his position on immigration. He pooh-poohed the idea that fences are the answer to keeping out illegal immigrants and said: "The practical effect of putting up a 10-foot-tall fence on the Mexican border will simply be to create a demand for 11-foot ladders."

At the reception after the debate, most of the audience members with whom I spoke talked about Dillion, saying his strong performance had taken them by surprise. Many of them had never seen him before, and he may be benefitting by low expectations or even no expectations.

It would still be a political miracle if Dillon won. No member of his party has ever received more than 21 percent in a congressional race (that was Tammy Lee in 2006 in the Fifth District). And he has little money or institutional support, especially compared to his rivals, who have the full backing of their national party organizations. Most of the voters will not make it to a debate. But Dillon is being noticed by those who do.

If you'd like to hear a little of the debate with your own ears, the link below will get you the closing statements. It's about two minutes per candidate, and the order is Paulsen, Dillon, Madia.

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