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The traveling show that is the Minnesota race for governor came to the Northland for the first time Tuesday in a debate exactly eight weeks before the election.

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Republican Tom Emmer, DFLer Mark Dayton and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner did their best Tuesday morning to pull their personalities and policy above the fray at the event sponsored by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce at the Duluth Playhouse. It was the seventh major debate for the candidates but the first in Northeastern Minnesota.

The state's looming fiscal crisis for 2011-12 took center stage, with fiscal analysts predicting at least a $6 billion shortfall in the $38 billion budget if spending cuts or revenue increases are not approved by the next governor and Legislature.

The candidates spent much of their stump time pushing their plans -- and criticizing their opponent's plans -- to solve the shortfall.

Horner is banking on a combination of spending cuts and expanding the state sales tax to clothing and some services.

Dayton is calling for restoring higher income tax rates for the wealthiest 20 percent of Minnesotans, those earning more than $152,000 per couple. Those rates were cut a decade ago.

Emmer said he would cut taxes and reduce spending where possible to make sure the state lives within its means.

All three also said job creation is the most critical issue facing the state, noting more workers earning paychecks and paying taxes helps families and keeps money flowing to the state for public services.

Emmer said the best way to create jobs is for government to get out of the way.

"I've never seen government invest our money better than we can," Emmer said. "Government's role is to get out of the way. ... More government is actually suppressing the entrepreneurial spirit."

But Horner and Dayton countered that there should be a partnership between government and business, and that government must increase its effort to bolster roads, schools, public safety and other basic services so Minnesota regains a competitive advantage.

"We need a strong talent pool," Horner said, noting the state should increase spending on education. "We need some smart public-sector investment."

Dayton agreed, saying it has been public investment in Minnesota, including University of Minnesota research that developed taconite processing, that has made Minnesota great. Dayton also highlighted the 1985 deal that created what is now the New Page paper mill in West Duluth as an example of public-private efforts.

Horner spent much of the 90 minutes trying to distinguish himself as a viable third-party candidate, repeatedly noting that partisan DFL-Republican bickering has caused gridlock in St. Paul.

"It's not about fighting over who's right, it's about fighting over what's right," Horner said to cheers. "I'm the one who can bring both sides together and get something done."

Emmer cited a long, expensive environmental review process for the proposed PolyMet copper mine near Hoyt Lakes, saying it has taken too long. Horner agreed.

The debate had its lighter moments, with Dayton trying to credit his hockey playing days for his penchant for scrapping with Emmer, and Emmer countering that Dayton was just "a goalie, and that's different. I'm the only one here who can skate."

All three candidates said they would attend the Duluth Days lobbying event held during legislative sessions, with Dayton saying he'd host it at the governor's mansion and Horner saying he'd even ride on the bus from Duluth to St. Paul.

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