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U.S. Senate candidates outline differences

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's three major Democratic U.S. Senate candidates agree on many policy items, but they show differences about why they should be their party's nominee.

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's three major Democratic U.S. Senate candidates agree on many policy items, but they show differences about why they should be their party's nominee.

Their first public debate ended Friday night with each promoting a different reason Democratic activists should consider when deciding who to nominate:

* Mike Ciresi promoted his 35-plus years as a leader. He ran for Senate in 2000 but is best known for winning Minnesota's 1990s lawsuit against big tobacco companies.

* Al Franken said his travels around the state show Minnesotans want new ideas. Franken is new to politics -- at least of the elective variety. He has been a comedian and liberal commentator.

* Jim Cohen is not well-known but said he should be the Democratic nominee because he has spent 40 years leading middle-class consumer, labor, environment, American Indian and constitutional rights issues.

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Twin Cities Public Television did not invite Dick Franson, a losing candidate in more than 20 elections since he served one term as a Minneapolis alderman, to its first-of-the-campaign debate on its "Almanac" weekly television show.

Ciresi, who lost a 2000 Senate Democratic race to eventual winner Mark Dayton, said leadership is the key to electing a senator.

"I think what you want is leadership," the attorney said. "You can't just talk about these things; you have got to get it done."

Without giving examples, Ciresi said he has shown he can accomplish things.

Franken said he has won the only labor endorsements handed out so far and received backing from 18 rural and 18 Twin Cities legislators, more than his opponents.

The former "Saturday Night Live" star said his is the real grass-roots campaign. He said he has had 49,500 donors and has more than 3,000 volunteers.

Cohen, an attorney, said his background has kept him in close touch with the middle class, hinting that his two opponents cannot claim that.

Ciresi this week launched radio commercials claiming to be the best candidate for the middle class.

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During the nearly 30-minute debate, aired statewide, the candidates constantly wanted to deliver extended answers, over the objections of hosts Cathy Wurzer and Eric Eskola, who wanted to move on to other issues.

The debate comes more than a year before the 2008 election.

Franken and Ciresi took occasional jabs at the man they want to replace in that election, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.

The candidates criticized Coleman and President Bush over Iraq.

Cohen called for removing American troops by April 2008.

But, he added, the key "is we get out in a more thoughtful and disciplined way than the tragic way in which we got in."

Ciresi said he always has been against the Iraq war and that months ago he wanted troops out by next May. But he said that since troops are still there, it may not be able to happen by then.

The United States should not allow genocide to take place in Iraq, he said, "but you don't have to occupy a country do to that."

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Franken said he originally supported going to war in Iraq, but not now.

"I didn't believe an administration would deliberately mislead us [into] going into a war," Franken said.

Franken made sure to mention that Coleman has voted with Bush on war issues.

Eskola asked Ciresi about comments made recently that the only reason his law firm has donated services to victims of the Aug. 1 Minneapolis bridge collapse was so he did not look like a money-grubbing lawyer.

"When you are a leader, people take shots at you," Ciresi said.

A foundation he established in 1999 has donated more than $20 million to Minnesotans, Ciresi said.

As to a Republican comment that Franken is the most divisive candidate, the comedian said: "I have been writing about the right-wing smear machine for years. That [Republican comment] seems pretty divisive."

Franken blamed Republicans, led by Bush, for dividing the country after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

DON DAVIS works for Forum Communications, which owns the Duluth News Tribune.

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