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U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, left, and Al Franken, right, lead forward, accusing each other of waging a nasty campaign for U.S. Senate. In the middle is Dean Barkley. staff photo by Don Davis

Candidates trade barbs in final debate

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ST. PAUL - The country's costliest U.S. Senate campaign left those at the candidates' final debate Sunday thinking it could be the nastiest, too.

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The sharp campaign attacks that dominated the past week continued in the hour-long Minnesota Public Radio debate, with the two leading Minnesota U.S. Senate candidates trading frequent barbs about campaign accusations and policy positions.

It started with a question to Republican Sen. Norm Coleman about allegations that a friend of his tried to use a business transaction to funnel money to the senator.

Coleman said there was no truth to the claims and he went right at Democratic challenger Al Franken, accusing him of supporting a television commercial about the issue that Coleman said defames his wife.

"Maybe you just don't know there are lines you don't cross," Coleman told Franken.

"This is not about Norm Coleman's wife." Franken responded. "This is about Norm Coleman's political sugar daddy. Norm Coleman can't blame this on me."

The fifth debate came amid a nasty close to the volatile contest between Coleman and Franken, who polls show are in a virtual dead heat. Polls consistently have shown the Independence Party's Dean Barkley far behind.

Barkley served as a buffer on the Fitzgerald Theater stage, seated between Franken and Coleman at a table with moderator Gary Eichten.

"Now you know one of the reasons I'm running," Barkley said. "I call this a fitting end to probably the most negative U.S. Senate campaign in Minnesota's history."

The debate came days after Coleman's name appeared in two Texas lawsuits alleging a wealthy Coleman friend and donor directed $75,000 through a Texas firm to the insurance company that contracts with the senator's wife, Laurie Coleman. It allegedly was to help the couple financially.

Franken said he had nothing to do with the allegations.

The debate included audience questions, including one from a woman who asked the candidates what priorities they would sacrifice to balance the federal budget and pay down the national debt.

Franken said Congress should make spending cuts, and it could save money by allowing the government to negotiate prices for Medicare drugs and by ending the Iraqi war.

When pressed to name a specific proposal of his, Franken said early childhood education expansions may have to be slowed. "I want to do a lot of things, but all of these things that I'm talking about have a return on investment."

Coleman said a five-year spending cap should be imposed, and that he would be willing to forgo his congressional salary increases.

"You do some things that are symbolic to send a message," said Coleman, who later told the audience Franken's tax and spending policies would worsen the economy.

Another sharp exchange came when they were allowed to ask one another a question.

Coleman, who has criticized Franken for having done little since he moved back to Minnesota three years ago, asked the former comedian to cite three things he's done to help Minnesotans.

"You want seven? Would you like seven?" Franken asked Coleman pointedly.

Franken said he has met with people who are struggling from chemical dependency, has spoken at events to help charities and raised money for helmets for U.S. soldiers.

"By the way, that was something a senator could have done, so imagine what I could do as a senator," Franken said.

Each candidate also used the debate to make a closing pitch to voters. Coleman said a senator should work for solutions, not just complain about problems. Franken touted his message of fighting for the middle class. Barkley said he is running out of anger at the two-party system's unwillingness to take on controversial issues.

The candidates left St. Paul after the debate for traditional end-of-race marathon campaigning.

Coleman headed south, planning to visit 12 cities from Rochester to Alexandria between this morning and 7 a.m. Tuesday, when polls open. He swings through St. Paul this afternoon for a rally with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Franken also starts the final campaign day in Rochester, and makes stops in St. Paul and Duluth before ending today in Minneapolis. He is rallying get-out-the-vote volunteers and helping to make campaign phone calls.

Barkley's campaign listed a lighter slate of campaign appearances than the other two.

They entered the Sunday night debate with recent polls showing Franken and Coleman essentially tied, with Barkley trailing.

Franken led Coleman by 4 points, 42 percent to 38 percent, in the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune's Minnesota Poll released Sunday. Franken's 4-point lead was within the poll's margin of error and about 4 percent of voters said they had not decided, effectively leaving the candidates in a dead heat. Barkley was supported by 15 percent of poll respondents.

A Rasmussen Reports poll last week indicated Coleman edging Franken 43 percent to 39 percent of likely voters. But Coleman's lead was within that survey's margin of error. Rasmussen reported Barkley was backed by 14 percent of poll respondents.

The Senate race also is the most expensive of any in the country, with more than $40 million already spent.

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