Locked in a tight race, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Democratic challenger Mike Hatch played it safe Wednesday night, leaning on comfortable themes and familiar lines of criticism in a debate.
Pawlenty challenged Hatch's ability to cut college tuition, boost aid to local governments and increase other spending as he is vowing without raising taxes.
"Two plus two doesn't equal five. Money doesn't grow on trees. There is no free lunch. The check is not in the mail," Pawlenty said.
In turn, Hatch sought to undermine Pawlenty's claims of vast job growth and flat taxes under his watch.
Hatch noted that Pawlenty opposed a cigarette tax increase while a legislator but then as governor turned around and bumped up the cost by 75 cents per pack, which he labeled a fee.
He said the state is sliding toward a "fast-food economy," where the jobs gained in Minnesota are mostly seen in the restaurant industry, temporary hires and the government sector.
"We're losing the middle class in America," Hatch, the two-term attorney general, said. "I will fight to the death to make sure we build that thing. Everything I do will be dedicated to that."
Three independent polls last week showed Hatch and Pawlenty statistically tied. A third candidate, the Independence Party's Peter Hutchinson, trailed substantially, drawing only single digits in each poll.
Hutchinson took after Pawlenty and Hatch, rapping his rivals for ducking debates and dodging questions during Wednesday's forum.
Moderators pressed the group to offer specific proposals for future road funding, education reform and the environment. But Hatch and Pawlenty mostly demurred.
On transportation, for instance, Hatch used his allotted time to highlight the backlog of highway projects, citing one in northeastern Minnesota where the state lost out on federal money because it wouldn't match the dollars. Pawlenty ate up his time talking about projects undertaken by his administration and assailing Hatch for being a "critic without having a plan."
Hutchinson said voters were getting the short shrift from both men.
"Mike Hatch wants to admire the problem. But I didn't hear what he wants to do," Hutchinson said. "Tim Pawlenty spent his whole time telling us Mike Hatch didn't answer the question in order to not answer the question."
The 90-minute debate took place in a packed auditorium at the University of Minnesota. Many seats were occupied by decided voters who wore T-shirts or buttons of their favored candidate. The event was hosted by Debate Minnesota, which is holding 15 debates in various races across the state this year.
By Brian Bakst, Associated Press Writer
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)