Our view: State Fair is the ideal venue for candidate debates

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, right, and Republican challenger Kurt Bills both try to speak during a debate hosted by Minnesota Public Radio at the 2012 Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights.

Political discourse is a longstanding tradition at the Minnesota State Fair, so it's regrettable that Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton have declined invitations to debate their opponents at the biggest festival in the state.

The Franken campaign didn't give a reason for turning down the invitation from Minnesota Public Radio, which has hosted the debates on the fairgrounds for 20 years. Franken spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff said the campaign has just begun considering invitations and hasn't ruled out another debate hosted by MPR at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Nov. 2. Franken plans to attend the 2014 Farmfest in Redwood County on Aug. 5-7, which is considered a key event for statewide candidates seeking rural votes.

A spokesman for Mike McFadden, the Republican-endorsed Senate candidate, said the campaign was "disappointed" that Franken was unwilling to debate at the State Fair. However, we find McFadden's criticism disingenuous because he has a credible opponent for the Republican nomination in Rep. Jim Abeler, a 16-year veteran of the House from Anoka, who has been rebuffed in his attempts to debate McFadden before the Aug. 12 primary.

Dayton's campaign gave a more defendable reason for bypassing the State Fair debate. The governor participated in more than 30 debates in 2010, which his campaign manager Katharine Tinucci said was "far too many for the candidates and also for Minnesota voters." She said the governor will narrow his participation to six debates.

We believe the Minnesota State Fair should be one of the debate sites. There's not a better place for a candidate to reach his or her constituency than at the Great Minnesota Get-Together, which typically draws more than 1.7 million people every year.


The MPR forums are often free-ranging debates that give candidates a chance to explain their positions in a give-and-take format. Chances are greater you'll see the candidates answer questions candidly rather than with a canned, well-rehearsed response.

Two years ago, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican challenger Kurt Bills sparred in a frank, philosophical exchange about the role of government. The same week, Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat who represents Minnesota in the 5th Congressional District, argued vehemently with his opponent, Republican Chris Fields, in a debate that drew national attention.

Political theater aside, we want to see the candidates engage with the voters. The fairgrounds in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights is an ideal venue for candidates, dressed casually with rolled-up shirtsleeves, to mingle with their constituents.

Ever since 1994, when the DFL candidates for governor, John Marty, Mike Hatch and Tony Bouza accepted the invitation to debate, the State Fair has been a vetting ground for Minnesota's statewide and national candidates. That tradition should continue.

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