ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Democrat Al Franken treated it almost as a TV commercial, staring straight into the camera to voters on their couches.
Republican Norm Coleman leaned in toward his foes, adding body language and emphasis to each of his points. The Independence Party's Dean Barkley interjected loudly at times, trying to play the role of fact-checker.
The three men vying for Minnesota's U.S. Senate seat took different tacks Friday night in a statewide televised debate that let them air their differences -- and agreements -- on taxes, guns, Social Security and partisanship in Washington.
The loose format gave rise to an animated debate in which they interrupted, talked over and otherwise engaged each other during Twin Cities Public Television's "Almanac" program.
It got started when show co-host Eric Eskola asked each to identify a false statement about himself in a competitor's ads.
Coleman, the incumbent, took umbrage with the accusation that he is in the pocket of the oil industry, saying the votes that have been cited in the ads were consistent with those of Democratic lawmakers throughout the Upper Midwest. Franken's gripe was being labeled a liar for criticizing the way a seniors' prescription drug plan was crafted. Barkley said Democrats took creative license with his position on Social Security, implying he wanted to privatize it when he doesn't back such a move.
"I'm glad I'm taking support and you're paying attention to me, but get your facts straight," Barkley said.
The candidates ran with the correct-the-record exercise and applied it on their own to other topics in the hourlong debate.
Franken took aim at Coleman for pledging to run an upbeat campaign in the last month while flirting with the idea of running the Senate Republican campaign arm if he gains another six-year term.
"The chairman of that committee is the most partisan member of Congress, of the Senate," said Franken, a humorist and former talk show host. "His job is to attack Democratic senators and Senate candidates."
Coleman fired back that he wouldn't take the job if it meant trashing candidates from the other party.
"Please Al, don't characterize my actions based on your perceptions," Coleman said.
Earlier in the debate, Barkley questioned whether Franken could reverse the partisan tide in Washington, citing the Democrat's recent ads stressing the importance of getting 60 Democratic seats in the Senate. That would impede Republicans' ability to use a procedural delay tactic known as a filibuster.
"You can't wait to get 60 votes so you can stick it to the Republicans," Barkley said to Franken.
The debate occurred on the evening before the sixth anniversary of Sen. Paul Wellstone's death. Wellstone was killed in a plane crash with two weeks to go in his race with Coleman, who went on to beat the fill-in Democratic candidate, former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Both Franken and Coleman invoked Wellstone to make their points.
Franken said he'd be a senator in the mold of Wellstone when it came to taking principled stands even it was out of the mainstream at the time. An example, he said, was the Senate's overwhelming vote for a $700 billion financial industry bailout, which Franken came out against.
"I'm going to use my independent judgment just like Paul Wellstone did when he voted against the war," Franken said.
Coleman pounced, noting that Franken declared how he would have acted on the bailout bill only after the Senate voted.
"Paul Wellstone never would have waited until after the vote to tell you what he was going to do. He would have never, ever waited until after the vote," Coleman said.
Barkley reflected on his Wellstone connection -- his brief time in the Senate when then-Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed him to fill out the late senator's term until Coleman was sworn in. He said he worked well with members of both parties while there.
Franken set off a tempest when he suggested the three had common stances in favor of the Second Amendment, a major concern in a state with a proud outdoor heritage.
Coleman called it "a stunning statement." He quoted from Franken's musings on guns in one of his books and noted that he had a far better rating from the National Rifle Association than Franken.
"I don't know how many times you can say it. I support the Second Amendment," Franken repeated. "People have a right to own guns for hunting, for collecting, for self protection."
The Democrat said he supports background checks for gun purchases and a gun database.
Barkley kept his response short: "The Second Amendment is the guardian for all the others."
Polls suggest a down-to-the-wire race between Franken and Coleman. Barkley remains a factor but is running a distant third.
The three meet in one more debate, on Nov. 2. Voters get their say two days later.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)