Reporting Esme Murphy
ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP/WCCO) — Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann faced Democrat Jim Graves for the first time Tuesday in a debate that featured clashes over taxes, health care and a bridge that isn’t even part of Minnesota’s 6th District to the north and west of Minneapolis.
Graves went after Bachmann for her outsized national profile as a tea party favorite who ran briefly for president last year, saying voters “need somebody that can create jobs, not headlines.”
Bachmann, who is seeking a fourth term, painted Graves as a big spender who would drive the country further into debt, a characterization Graves rejected by emphasizing his background as a successful hotel magnate. Bachmann stressed the time she spends in the district listening to voters, saying she has delivered on the bridge project, a veterans care facility and other local priorities.
“I am here. I am one of you. I’ve been in this district since I was in elementary school,” said Bachmann, adding that she visits the district “almost every weekend.”
Bachmann’s fundraising prowess has made the race one of the nation’s most expensive House contests, although the national parties and outside groups have spent little. Bachmann raised about $13 million through mid-October, while Graves collected almost $2 million, including $520,000 from his own pocket.
Their campaign is playing out across a conservative area that stretches from the St. Cloud area to northern and western Twin Cities suburbs. The district grew more conservative when political boundaries were redrawn this year. Much of the action has happened in TV ads, with Bachmann characterizing Graves as “Big Spending Jim” and Graves accusing her of neglecting her constituents.
The candidates spent about 15 minutes at the beginning of the hour-long debate clashing over a bridge between Minnesota and Wisconsin near Stillwater, Minn., which now lies outside the district’s new boundaries. Bachmann name-dropped Democrats including Gov. Mark Dayton, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as she said she exercised bipartisan muscle to pass the bill.
“A miracle happened and we finally got it done,” she said.
Graves said he wouldn’t have voted for the bridge design that passed, calling it a Rolls-Royce when a less expensive Chevy would have done. The entire project is estimated to cost between $580 million and $676 million.
Graves questioned why the price was so much higher than a $234 million replacement for an Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145.
“It’s costing twice what it probably would have had to,” he said.
Bachmann said environmental challenges drove up the cost of the bridge, which has been in the works for decades.
The feisty crowd of several hundred appeared to have more Graves supporters, with some jeering Bachmann several times, including once when she claimed that taxes would go up if Graves were elected.
“With Jim Graves, add about 50 percent to your tax bill; that’s what you’d be looking at,” she said before she was interrupted.
Graves called the allegation “a bunch of malarkey.”
The challenger was aggressive throughout the debate, at one point saying, “Michele, would you read my lips, please?”
Graves accused Bachmann of taking comments he made about the federal health care law out of context to omit his critical comments about the bill. Later, he said her answer to a question on Social Security and Medicare was “political speak.”
“It’s insulting to say this is political speak because that’s one thing I don’t do,” Bachmann said, drawing more scoffs from members of the crowd.
Although the crowd might not have been with Bachmann, independent polls show she is at least 6 points ahead of Graves. She is expected to win, but she has repeatedly called this her toughest race ever.
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