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Three major candidates for Minnesota's U.S. Senate seat met for the fourth time Friday night on Twin Cities Public Television. (from left) host Cathy Wurzer, former Sen. Dean Barkley, Al Franken, host Eric Eskola and Sen. Norm Coleman. Staff photo by Don Davis

Gun issue fires up Senate hopefuls

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ST. PAUL - Al Franken suggested he and Republican Sen. Norm Coleman agree on gun rights.

"I support the 2nd Amendment," Franken said. "I don't think we're any different on this."

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Coleman shot that down.

"That is a stunning statement," he told the Democrat during a Friday night debate among Minnesota's three major candidates for U.S. Senate.

Coleman, locked in a tight battle with Franken, said his main opponent got a failing grade from the National Rifle Association and has suggested limiting gun ownership.

"There's no question that there's significant differences," Coleman said, touting his 'A' rating from the rifle association.

That was among issues over which the candidates sparred during their fourth debate, on Twin Cities Public Television's "Almanac" public affairs show.

The one-hour debate's loose format - no timed answers or formal opening or closing statements - yielded the candidates' most lively interaction of the campaign.

Franken challenged Coleman's willingness to work with Democrats. Coleman said Franken misrepresented him, did not understand Senate actions and lacks a record of accomplishment.

Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley, who polls show is trailing Franken and Coleman by at least 15 points, played the role he has in previous debates. He presented himself as an alternative to gridlocked Democrats and Republicans.

The three candidates did agree on one issue: they would oppose a second economic stimulus package like one Congress passed earlier this year that sent government checks to taxpayer mailboxes.

But a question about the 2nd amendment sparked a feisty exchange.

Franken said repeatedly that he supports citizens' right to own firearms, but also said he supports background checks and a national gun ownership database.

Franken said he is not a hunter, but went hunting for the first time last year with U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson of western Minnesota.

Republicans have questioned Franken's support for 2nd Amendment rights, and Coleman's campaign issued a statement following the debate that included excerpts from one of Franken's books and a quote from a radio interview to suggest he is at odds with gun-rights advocates.

"You think I really want to take people's guns away?" he asked.

Barkley said that he and Coleman are the two who agree on gun-rights issues.

"The 2nd Amendment is the guardian for all the others," he said.

There was no support among the candidates for a second economic stimulus package, which congressional leaders are considering attempting to pass yet this year.

Coleman said he would vote against another bill similar to what Congress passed earlier this year.

"If it's another spending package, I'm not going to support it," Coleman said, adding later that he would be open to a deal if it cut taxes for small businesses.

Franken agreed with his GOP challenger.

"I don't like that," he said of a second stimulus deal. The best way to help the economy would be to start new infrastructure projects, cut taxes for the middle class and invest in renewable energy, he said.

There is no evidence the first package - known for its $600 checks to individuals - did anything to improve the U.S. economy, Barkley said. Americans have lost faith in Wall Street, Congress and the presidency.

"The only thing that's going to work is when people start believing in their institutions again," Barkley said.

There was little agreement beyond that. Franken took issue with Coleman's claim that he is among the most independent Senate Republicans and frequently works with Democrats.

Franken said Coleman wants two jobs - senator for another six years and a stint as leader of the Senate GOP's campaign organization. That is among the most partisan jobs in Congress, he said.

Coleman said if re-elected and offered the job leading the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he would turn it down if it required operating "the way politics are now."

The candidates met before a national audience; the debate was broadcast live nationwide on C-SPAN 2. They will meet one more time, in a Minnesota Public Radio-sponsored debate at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2.

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The candidates were tense during the debate, but were in lighter spirits beforehand. When "Almanac" co-host Cathy Wurzer suggested to her fellow host, and husband, Eric Eskola that his socks were sagging, all three candidates also pulled up their socks.

And Franken, the former comedian, could be heard telling a story about how he promised to buy a new tie for Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, his Democratic primary opponent.

Afterward, Coleman told TPT he was a fan of the debate format, which did not have timed answers, and suggested it be twice as long in the future.

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