ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Republican gubernatorial candidates Tim Pawlenty and Jeff Johnson spent their first public debate Friday arguing over Pawlenty's two previous terms as Minnesota governor and who insulted President Donald Trump worse in the run-up to the 2016 election.
The two candidates laid out few policy differences during a nearly hour-long debate hosted by Minnesota Public Radio News, differing largely on style rather than substance. Both vowed to eliminate the state's taxes on Social Security income — a popular topic among Minnesota Republicans — if elected, and voiced their support for Trump's moves to cut federal taxes and curtail illegal immigration.
But they clashed while rehashing the 2016 election and their support of the President. Pawlenty called Trump "unhinged and unfit for office" weeks ahead of Election Day, a remark that has loomed over Pawlenty's pursuit for his old job since before entering the race in early April.
Pawlenty countered that Johnson had once publicly referred to Trump as a "jackass," and that he still voted for Trump. Johnson said he regretted his word choice but still supported Trump over Clinton at the time.
"I supported him. You told people not to vote for him," Johnson said.
It underlines Trump's omnipresence in Republican politics as the midterm elections approach, even in traditionally Democratic states like Minnesota.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is leaving office after two terms, triggering a wide-open race to replace him. For Pawlenty, it's a shot at political revival after leaving the governor's office in early 2011 and quickly flaming out as a candidate in the 2012 presidential election. Johnson, a Hennepin county Commissioner and former lawmaker, is making his second try at the office after losing to Dayton in 2014.
The primary winner will take on one of three Democrats — state Rep. Erin Murphy, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz or Attorney General Lori Swanson. It gives Republicans another chance at their first statewide victory since Pawlenty's 2006 re-election.
Johnson critiqued Pawlenty's two terms as governor. He accused Pawlenty of "campaigning as a conservative but governing as a moderate," pointing to the growth of the regional planning agency Metropolitan Council's budget while Pawlenty was in office.
"Why didn't you author a bill to abolish it?" Pawlenty snapped back. "If you're going to say that you're a champion of these things, you have to do more than take up space and sit in a chair."
Johnson laid out several more specific proposals while Pawlenty continually referenced his tenure in office. Asked a question about new limits on abortion they would support, Pawlenty pointed to his signature on a 2003 bill requiring physicians to give women information about their pregnancy before getting an abortion.
Johnson said he'd try to ban taxpayer funded abortions through the state's public health care programs and would push to pass legislation banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected if the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade case.
Pawlenty positioned himself as the only candidate who could beat Democrats in November and break the party's drought. But Johnson touted the endorsement he won from party activists at the statewide GOP convention in June, saying Pawlenty risked upsetting them in the months to come by not competing for it.
"If we think we can win in November by essentially just pushing aside the most active Republicans in the state, I think we're crazy," Johnson said.