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Mondale, Coleman spar in Senate debate

Race seen as tight

Former Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale, left, and Republican Norm Coleman
Former Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale, left, and Republican Norm Coleman

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ST. PAUL, Minnesota. (CNN) -- On the eve of the election, former Vice President Walter Mondale clashed Monday in a televised debate with Republican Norm Coleman in the one of the closest -- and certainly the shortest -- Senate campaigns in the nation.

Mondale attacked his opponent's anti-abortion stance as "arbitrary" and Coleman, 53, portrayed his 74-year-old rival as a relic of the past.

It was the sole face-to-face encounter between the two men in a race turned upside-down by the October 25 death of Democratic incumbent Paul Wellstone. Mondale replaced Wellstone on the ballot last week, leaving himself and Coleman with only five full days to run against each other.

Coleman, former mayor of St. Paul, had been given a 50-50 chance of beating Wellstone. Though he avoided any reference to Mondale's age, he painted him as an old-time liberal who would vote for higher taxes.

In a pointed reference to Mondale's failed 1984 presidential bid, Coleman said Mondale promised to raise taxes then and, in effect, is doing so again when he talks about rolling back a portion of President Bush's tax cut.

For his part, Mondale cast Coleman as a right-wing ideologue using soft-spoken rhetoric as a camouflage.

Coleman countered: "I really believe we got to change that tone in Washington, move away from the strict partisan divides, find a way to cross the aisle. That was my experience in St. Paul, and that's the experience that I'll bring to Washington."

Mondale, who spent 12 years in the Senate before becoming Jimmy Carter's vice president and later launching his own White House campaign, criticized Coleman's corporate support, accused him of siding with the Bush administration's "right-wing bias" on judicial nominations and called him an "arbitrary right-to-lifer" on abortion.

That triggered a sharp -- and highly personal -- response from Coleman, who lost two of his four children to a rare genetic disorder soon after birth.

"I have a deep and profound respect for the value of life; it's not arbitrary," he said. "But even on that issue, I think we can and should look to find common ground."

Mondale said Coleman's campaign has been "a poster child for what is wrong in politics," and asserted, "I owe no one."

"Who is ready to be a truly independent representative of Minnesota? Who is free of entangling alliances and big money that allows them to represent? What do we need -- that sort of person who can truly independently represent Minnesota, or something else?" Mondale asked.

Coleman painted himself as a pragmatist who revitalized Minnesota's capital as mayor from 1993 to 2001, bringing back a National Hockey League team and producing 18,000 new jobs without raising taxes. He brought up what many say killed Mondale's 1984 presidential bid -- his statement that he would raise taxes if elected to balance the federal budget -- and said Mondale would vote to curtail part of Bush's 2001 tax cuts.

"You don't grow jobs, you don't grow the economy by raising taxes," Coleman said. "The vice president thought that in 1984; he was wrong. He proposes now again what he calls rolling back some of the tax cut -- that's raising taxes."

Mondale said taxes were raised anyway after his landslide loss to Ronald Reagan, and that few Minnesotans have benefited from Bush's tax cut.

"I was the one who told the truth before the election," he said. "And I think that's one of the big things that Minnesotans have to look at: Who's got the courage to stand up and level with the people even when it's difficult?"

The Minnesota race was hard-fought before Wellstone's death and has heated up again since Mondale assumed the Democratic nomination. Supporters of both candidates lined the streets outside St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater as the debate got under way, and the 300 partisans inside erupted in raucous applause at the debate's end.

But the candidate of Minnesota's Independence Party, led by Gov. Jesse Ventura, was not included in Monday's debate.

In a rebuke to the major parties, Ventura named Dean Barkley -- his former campaign manager -- as an interim senator Monday. Barkley will represent Minnesota in the Senate until Tuesday's election results are certified or possibly until January if Senate rules allow, Ventura said. (Full story)

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