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Nolan, Cravaack spar over economy in final debate

Though Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack (left) and DFL challenger Rick Nolan found much to disagree about in their debate in Virginia on Wednesday, the two laughed and shook hands after agreeing that the Air National Guard's 148th Fighter Wing is an important asset to the Northland. (Bob King / / 2
Gloria Toivola (foreground) of Iron Lake Township listens intently during the debate between 8th Congressional District candidates Chip Cravaack and Rick Nolan held at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College on Wednesday. (Bob King / / 2

VIRGINIA -- The two candidates for the 8th Congressional District agreed that U.S. troops should be brought home from Afghanistan immediately, that mining is the backbone of the region's economy and that the Air National Guard's 148th Fighter Wing is a valuable asset for Duluth and the Northland.

Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack and DFL challenger Rick Nolan even shook hands when they found agreement Wednesday afternoon as they sparred in their fourth and final debate of the campaign, this time at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College.

But the candidates found more to argue about than agree on, especially on how to best jump-start the Northland and national economies.

About 280 people filled the college's auditorium to listen to the 90-minute debate with more people in an overflow area. It seemed many had already made up their minds, with most of the people in the seats wearing either blue Cravaack T-shirts or orange Nolan pins.

"I want to hear what they both have to say. But I'm going to vote for Nolan," said Walt Brinkman of Mountain Iron, a retired union tool and die maker. "I've been a Democrat all my life. And I think it's important we keep them in office now. ... Obama inherited a hell of a mess from Bush and the Republicans. I said when he (Obama) was first elected, it's going to take eight years to get out of it."

But Gail Hendrickson of Eveleth said she likes what Cravaack has done in his first two years and wants to keep him in office. Hendrickson, a former Democrat who once supported Paul Wellstone, said she's now shifted to Republican.

"I came to show my support for Chip," she said. "He's strong for mining. I like what he's done to support mining. And I think he's worked hard in Washington. ... I voted for Obama, but it just hasn't worked out the last three years."

Cravaack reiterated the Republican House plan for "pro-growth" tax cuts for corporations and reducing regulations, to spur companies to grow and create jobs. He said a strong national economy will create demand for steel and taconite and thus boost the Northland's economy.

"I want this (Northeastern Minnesota) to be the Bakken field of taconite and precious-metal mining," Cravaack said, referring to North Dakota's oil boom area.

But Nolan said Republican "trickle down" economics of reducing taxes for companies and the wealthy really mean that "the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the middle class gets crushed," and he said taxes should be raised and loopholes that have encouraged U.S. companies to move jobs overseas should be eliminated. "We have to rebuild our economy from the middle out, not from the top down."

Nolan also called for increased federal investment in bridges and roads to bolster steel demand and create jobs, and he called on raising taxes on the "super-rich" to help reduce the national debt, along with targeted cuts in federal spending, including cuts in overseas military spending.

Nolan, 68, of Crosby, is a former member of Congress representing central Minnesota. He operated a pallet manufacturing company and sawmill for many years.

Cravaack, 53, is a former pilot for the former Northwest Airlines and also served in the U.S. Navy. He's a first-term Republican who defeated longtime incumbent DFLer Jim Oberstar in 2010. He now lives in North Branch, Minn.

While both agreed that U.S. troops should quickly pull out of Afghanistan, they differed on additional cuts in military spending. Nolan said too much money has been spent on foreign bases and war, while Cravaack warned against reducing the capabilities of the military.

"The threats to the United States have not decreased since 9/11 -- they have increased," he said.

Both men expressed support for the existing taconite and planned copper mining industries in the region. Cravaack touted his legislation -- which has passed the House but not the Senate -- that would streamline environmental review of mining projects. He blamed federal regulations for slowing or even threatening some projects.

"The EPA has just gone wild," he said.

Nolan agreed that environmental review should move more quickly but said regulations have their place to protect clean air and water. He touted his plan for an applied research center on the Range to develop new products from mined material, much as University of Minnesota researchers developed the process used to process taconite from low-grade ore.

Both moderator Barbara Reyelts of the Northland's NewsCenter and members of the audience asked questions about the high cost of college education and the huge debt load now imposed on many college graduates and their parents.

Nolan said the state and federal governments have been cutting back direct support for universities that in the past kept tuition lower. Nolan said he supports increased funding for Pell grants to make college accessible to more people. He criticized Republican efforts to cut grants and reduce government spending on education.

But Cravaack said the problem lies within the education system itself, saying college costs have risen faster than even health care over the last two decades. Cravaack said schools are spending too much money on "15-person hot tubs" and "leaded glass windows" and said colleges and universities need to cut costs.

Nolan fired back that "there are no hot-tub programs at Mesabi Community College," yet community college costs have soared in recent years. It was one of the few candidate jabs that drew laughter at the debate. College officials confirmed there is no hot tub at the school.

Wednesday's event was sponsored by Debate Minnesota, a multi-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to political discourse with substance and to encourage political participation.