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Military veterans should be guaranteed medical care for life, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken said Tuesday as part of a package of proposals that also would expand the level of care.

Speaking at a modest VFW post in Hopkins before a small crowd of about a dozen vets, Franken was joined by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who said he brought the "same spirit of passion and compassion" to issues as the late Sen. Paul Wellstone.

The event marked the first time Klobuchar, a popular figure in Minnesota politics, has campaigned with Franken since the DFL endorsing convention in late May. Franken is challenging Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.

Lacking bases, Minnesota is not a large player on the military scene in the way some states are, but it has been a steady supplier of troop strength and has a growing base of veterans, many in need of ongoing care.

Franken said that he was unsure how much such a health proposal would cost but that the nation owed lifetime care to those who had offered themselves in service.

"The promises we made to those in uniform are not optional," he said. "They are earned."

Franken accused Coleman of voting 18 times against increasing veterans' benefits, saying that "what was more important to him was tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires."

"Al Franken's solution to every problem is to simply raise taxes," said Coleman spokesman Luke Friedrich. "Senator Coleman has demonstrated that you can significantly raise benefits without raising taxes -- as he did with over 30 votes that have increased veterans' funding by nearly 70 percent during his time in office."

Franken said he would move to cut the existing Veterans Affairs backlog of claims by 50 percent in two years and make other improvements to mental health screenings, military pay and family benefits.

Lou Ellingson, a Vietnam vet and vice commander of the Hopkins post, said he'll be judging the candidates based on how well they will support veterans. "I haven't really made up my mind yet," he said. Ellingson said he appreciated Franken's seven USO tours, including four to Iraq. "He's been particularly supportive and aggressive on our issues," Ellingson said "but Coleman's done some things too. I'm going to wait and see."

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288