ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO/AP) — After weeks of TV ads focused on Medicare, Republican Chip Cravaack and Democrat Rick Nolan got into it over jobs and other issues in their first debate.

The first-term incumbent and Nolan, a former congressman, faced each other Tuesday before a well-behaved live audience in Duluth.

This 8th District race has unexpectedly become one of the most hotly contested campaigns in the country. A lot of money has been spent to run negative television ads in the Twin Cities and in Duluth, with spending by outside groups topping $4 million.

By comparison, today’s debate was tough but civil. Democrat Nolan accusing Republican Cravaack of voting to spend money on war-related projects overseas, while ignoring roads and bridges here at home.

“You continue to vote trillions and trillions of dollars for these endless wars of choice and this nation building abroad.  It’s not a question of where is the money. It’s a question of where the money goes,” said Nolan. “You’ve been a real big spender when it comes to nation building abroad, but you are not much when it comes to building our own communities and creating jobs here.”

Nolan hit Cravaack hard for not supporting more government spending on infrastructure, repeatedly mentioning Cravaacks support for what he called “wars of choice” spending.

Cravaack objected, “The wars of choice, as you call it sir, are a response to 9/11, where over 3,000 Americans were killed. Now, i believe in protecting the United States. We didn’t look for this fight.  It came to our shores, and that’s a response to 9/11 and Americans being killed.”

Nolan called Cravaack a “big spender” on defense who has neglected domestic priorities such as transportation. He says small businesses haven’t been helped by Cravaack’s support of tax breaks because they need middle-class customers who can buy their products.

Cravaack says cutting taxes and regulations will create jobs. He says Nolan represents an “antiquated” style of big government.

Cravaack is trying to win a second term as a Republican in a traditionally Democratic district after his upset victory two years ago over longtime Congressman James Oberstar.

Nolan served in Congress more than 30 years ago,  and we’ve watched his voting record from the 1970s become part of the 2012 race.

TV airwaves in Duluth and the Twin Cities have been flooded with ads about the race, with spending by outside groups topping $4 million.

(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Pat Kessler