'Minnesota Nice'? Democrat Rep. Jim Oberstar Blasts Tea Party Critics in Debate

Video of Minnesota congressional debate courtesy WDIO.PlayABCNEWS.com
WATCH MN Rep. Jim Oberstar Blasts Tea Party Critics

In Minnesota, home to liberal political legends Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone, Democratic veterans like Rep. Jim Oberstar aren't often daunted by challenges from Republican opponents.

Oberstar, whose 18-terms in the U.S. House make him the state's most senior member of Congress, has never received less than 59 percent of the vote. He won the 8th congressional district by 36 points over his Republican opponent in 2008 and 30 points in 2006.

But in an election year roiled by anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment, Oberstar, 76, is now facing unprecedented pressure from a Republican political novice, former Navy pilot Chip Cravaack, creating a dynamic that has the candidates setting aside their "Minnesota Nice."

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Oberstar and Cravaack faced-off in a raucous debate Tuesday that sparked fireworks over some of the most contentious policy debates that have defined this cycle, drawing national attention to an otherwise quiet race.

"What this health care bill has given us ? it's going to put a very large cost increase on our employers and it's also ? and it's going to be a job killer," said Cravaack, 51, who is backed by Tea Party groups.

"We have the best health care in the world, and we're just going to make it better with this system," Oberstar shot back. "It's not going to cost us more. It is not going to cost more money. That is a phony argument picked up by the Heritage Foundation and they're dead wrong," he said, shouting over the boisterous crowd that erupted into protest as he spoke.

"Did you read the bill?" someone shouted from the crowd. "I read the bill," Oberstar angrily replied.

The two candidates also wrangled over the so-called cap and trade issue, and other environmental protection policies which are salient issues for many voters in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

"Climate change is real. I'm sorry if the flat earth society over here doesn't believe it," Oberstar said, referring to Cravaack. "Lake Superior is 4 degrees warmer than it was 15 years ago. Again, I'm sorry if they just don't like the facts."

Cravaack argued Oberstar's support for cap and trade, and other positions like allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire, would cost northern Minnesotans. "The last thing we here in northern Minnesota need is more taxes," he said.

But Oberstar did not back down. We face "a colossal mountain of debt created by the previous administration," he said, eliciting loud boos from the crowd. "I gather they don't like to hear the truth," he said of his vocal detractors.

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Polls show Oberstar, who's long been considered the favorite, with a steady lead over Cravaack, but by a much narrower margin than he's had in the past.

"Oberstar is a personally beloved figure in northern Minnesota's Iron Range," the Cook Political Report says of the race. "But as the political environment sours for long-term veterans in marginal districts who have voted for unpopular Democratic agenda items ? [Oberstar] must take Cravaack very seriously."

Observers say Oberstar has stepped up his campaigning across the district with help from a sizable financial advantage going into the final stretch. He's raised more than $1.5 million and has over $500,000 still on hand, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings.

"Jim has got the game it takes to be successful," says popular, local basketball coach Paul McDonald, who's featured in Oberstar's latest TV ad. "Don't listen to the naysayers in the crowd. Keep Jim Oberstar in the game."

Meanwhile, Cravaack, who's raised less than a quarter of a million dollars and only has $132,000 on hand, is running an ad with a simple message: "Mr. Oberstar has been in Washington almost 50 years but he's voting against us. It's time we make a change."