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Crowd gets raucous at Oberstar and Cravaack debate

Jim Oberstar and Chip Cravaack didn't just face each other this morning at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Auditorium, they faced angry mobs of their opponent's supporters.

Just seconds into the first comments by DFLer Oberstar, Cravaack supporters began to shout the long-term incumbent down with calls of "liar'' and "Obama Junior.''

By the time challenger Cravaack's turn came, Oberstar supporters responded in kind.

Moderators asked for civility and respect, but the cat calls and jeering from a nearly-full auditorium continued through most of the 90-minute forum, often drowning-out candidate's answers over a faulty sound system that lacked volume.

Oberstar was cut short several times, and fell into responding to Cravaack supporters as they heckled him.

"You just don't want to hear the facts. You don't want to hear the truth,'' Oberstar tried to say.

"You don't know the truth,'' a Cravaack supporter responded.

Many of the more than 1,800 in attendance had made up their minds as to who they'll vote for well before the forum - most wore stickers, shirts or hats with their candidate's name -- the candidates did get their chance to stake-out their positions on key issues.

When asked what their first priority would be if elected to Congress, Republican Cravaack said he would "get rid of Obamacare'' to shouts of glee and applause from his supporters.

"I want to make sure that never happens,'' DFLer Oberstar snapped back, adding that he would work to protect health care reform. He said his top priority would be to pass a federal transportation funding bill to put construction workers back to work rebuilding the nation's highways, rails and airports.

The differences on health care reform were stark.

"It's going to be a job killer,'' Cravaack said. "It's going to put a bureaucrat between us and our doctor."

But Oberstar said the health reform package "that I proudly voted for" will guarantee coverage despite pre-existing conditions, guarantee coverage won't be cut off, end caps on benefits and, eventually, reduce the cost of health insurance while covering more people.

Oberstar countered that "health insurance company bureaucrats'' already are standing between patients and doctors, denying coverage and looking after corporate "bottom lines'' rather than patient care.

The candidates also were at opposite ends on whether the federal economic stimulus efforts have paid-off.

Cravaack said no, that the increased federal spending has put the nation farther into debt with little to show. Democrats vowed the stimulus would keep unemployment at 8 percent or lower, Cravaack noted, but it now stands at 10 percent "and it's 13 percent in Brainerd.''

The stimulus has increased the federal debt that future generations "will be paying for for the rest of their lives.

"Did the stimulus bill work? No,'' Cravaack said. "The United States government does not create jobs.''

Cravaack said the government would create more jobs by cutting business taxes.

"Get rid of the regulations and restrictions,'' Cravaack said, adding that "I trust you with your money. He (Oberstar) trusts government with your money.''

Oberstar countered that the stimulus bill and related federal economic efforts helped slow job loss in the nation while providing private sector jobs rebuilding roads, bridges and buildings nationwide. Oberstar said the new federal spending created 13,000 construction jobs in Minnesota alone and will help pay for new airport terminals in Duluth and Brainerd and 535 miles of highway reconstruction in the state.

Oberstar also noted that much of the stimulus spending actually went to cut tax bills on paychecks.

"The stimulus bill included a tax break for everyone in America... that put money back in the pockets of people to spend,'' Oberstar said. "And it put people back to work.''

On cap-and-trade legislation aimed at reducing carbon emissions, which Oberstar voted for before the bill failed to advance, Cravaack said the nation can't afford higher energy costs. He claimed increased costs for electricity from the carbon-cutting effort could kill Minnesota's taconite industry.

Oberstar countered that taconite and steel industries are afforded a credit in the version of legislation he voted for, saying the nation needed to make some progress in stemming carbon emissions widely blamed for spurring global climate change.

"It's changing our way of life. We have to deal with this issue'' of climate change, Oberstar said to boos and cat calls from Cravaack supporters. Oberstar said the claims carbon cutting legislation will put "our industry of work is fundamentally wrong."

When the heckling on climate change grew louder, Oberstar accused the Cravaack supporters of being in the "flat earth society.'' When he tried to rattle off statistics on warming trends, he was shouted down again with calls of "liar."

The only lighter moments came when Cravaack and Oberstar briefly traded barbs speaking in Italian. Oberstar also thanked Cravaack for his military service and Cravaack responded, thanking Oberstar for his Congressional service.

George Sundstrom, a retired Duluth union sheet metal worker, union leader and Oberstar supporter, said after that he was surprised the event got so out of hand.

"I'm angry at how it went on and on. Those people didn't want to hear, they refused to listen,'' Sundstrom said. "It wasn't a forum, it was a shouting match for the crowd."

Alan Gonia of Duluth said he's supporting Cravaack. But he said the forum turned nasty because of heightened emotions over federal issues such as healthcare, the economy, abortion and more. Gonia, who also attended last month's gubernatorial forum in Duluth, noted that event held little of the same rancor as the Oberstar-Cravaack event. There was almost no heckling and little cheering at the governor's event.

"There are a lot of tea party people here who feel very strongly on some of these federal issues. It's why they are involved'' in politics, Gonia said. "But I still wish they would keep it down enough so we could at least hear both answers."

Sandy Jennisch of Hermantown said she came to the forum favoring Cravaack but still wanted to see and hear how he handled himself.

"I really didn't know him that well and I wanted to hear how he answered and how he handled himself,'' she said, adding that she was happy with the result. "I thought he was very poised. He was able to get his point across.''

While there were no Duluth police at the forum as the crowd entered, there were five squad cars at the doors when the event ended. Brad Wick, Duluth police spokesman, said there were no reports of any actual violence, although there had been rumors of fisticuffs between Cravaack and Oberstar supporters in the Skywalk system.

Cravaack, 51, was born in Charleston, West Virginia and grew up in Madeira, Ohio. After a career with the U.S. Navy he became a pilot for Northwest Airlines, moving to Minnesota in 1990. Cravaack moved to Lindstrom, Minn. and into the Eighth District, in 2003. This is his first run for political office.

Oberstar, 76, is Minnesota's longest serving Congressman ever, first elected in 1974. He has never earned less than 59 percent of the vote. He's a native of Chisholm, and still owns his mother's former house there.

The event was sponsored by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, St. Luke's Hospital and Duluth News Tribune.