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ST. CLOUD - Confronting signs of a narrowing contest in the Sixth Congressional District, Rep. Michele Bachmann and DFL challenger Elwyn Tinklenberg linked each other Thursday to an unpopular President Bush in a debate with sharp exchanges on immigration, oil drilling and the financial rescue plan.

"Representative Bachmann continues to embrace this president and his policies and the failed strategies of the past," Tinklenberg said.

"He is more in line with President Bush's policies than I am," said Bachmann, a Republican, who cited immigration as an example.

Earlier in the debate, Tinklenberg said he supported securing the nation's borders but agreed with Bush's proposal to create a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, something Bachmann opposes. Tinklenberg's stance prompted the sharpest exchange.

"Without having some sort of a barrier at the border, we're going to continue to have the kind of problems that we've had with Olga Franco that we saw most recently in the tragic death of four children in the accident," Bachmann said, referring to an illegal immigrant whose minivan struck a school bus in Cottonwood, Minn. "These are preventable and we need to do that with sealing America's borders."

Tinklenberg replied, "I think it's just a little untoward to exploit a tragic situation to advance a narrow ideological agenda in regard to immigration. Going after Olga Franco and every other immigrant because of that accident just doesn't seem right to me."

Bachmann called that remark "highly offensive, especially for the families who are victims, not only just here in Minnesota but all across America" and said illegal immigrants were "bringing in diseases, bringing in drugs, bringing in violence."

The debate occurred as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee plans to begin spending money in the district, citing an internal poll that it says shows the race narrowing, with Bachmann holding a slim lead.

A pro-labor group, the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, has been running TV ads showing Bachmann embracing Bush and linking her to his policies. During the debate, Bachmann repeatedly distanced herself from the president.

After Tinklenberg blamed the financial crisis on "lack of regulation" and defended the $700 billion rescue as needed to avert bigger problems, Bachmann denounced "bailout mania" and told the 150 people attending at the new St. Cloud library that the money "will be coming out of your pockets." Bachmann, who voted against the rescue package, stressed that it originated with Bush.

Bachmann renewed her call to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and said the recent fall in gas prices stemmed in part from a congressional relaxation of restrictions on offshore drilling this summer. Tinklenberg dismissed her claim. "The reason gasoline prices are going down is because consumption is going down," he said, citing it as support for his call for increased conservation.

Sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce, the debate featured sparring on issues of interest to businesses.

Bachmann attacked Tinklenberg on the inheritance tax on wealthier estates, labeling it "the most immoral tax that there is" and calling for its repeal. Tinklenberg said he opposed "an inheritance tax that would cause the breakup of businesses" but said he "would not support the entire repeal."

Tinklenberg said Bush tax policy has focused on the wealthy. "We have built greater and greater amounts of wealth that haven't trickled down," he said.

Bachmann said Tinklenberg is calling for a "Jimmy Carter-era tax style ... Liberals like my opponent just love to bash people who become successful."

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210