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MORGAN, MINN. - Under the big tent at Farmfest, Minnesota's U.S. Senate candidates found the closest thing to a level playing field that they might see in what so far has been a lopsided contest.

Incumbent Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, leading in polls and with millions of dollars in the bank, took the stage Wednesday with Republican challenger Kurt Bills and Independence Party candidate Glen Menze.

It was the first time the Senate candidates have met on the same stage and Klobuchar was quick to draw contrasts. She sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee and had worked to pass the farm bill. "I did support the Senate farm bill, from beginning to end," she said, noting that she worked with Republicans from neighboring farm states to push the bill.

"We worked together on this farm bill and that's what Minnesota wants. ... Not supporting the Senate farm bill leaves you with nothing to move forward on in terms of a long-term, five-year, consistent investment horizon for our farmers."

The bill, she noted, already contains $23 billion in cuts, compared with the previous farm bill.

Bills, a high school economics teacher and first-term state representative, told the crowd that he would have voted against the massive farm measure now stalled in Congress, even though it includes vital drought assistance for the nation's parched farmlands.

"It's difficult to be the guy who says 'No, we can't, no, we can't,'" Bills said. " ... I'm on a mission to stop the debt. We can't pay for everything."

Bills said he'd like to go through the massive farm bill "line by line" and start trimming. He declined to give a number, but he said the federal farm bill's primary use should be crop insurance, loan support and conservation. "Maybe that money isn't being well spent, especially when it's benefiting multi-billion-dollar organizations," he said. "Not for the big guy. For the little guy."

The candidates fielded questions on everything from biofuels to animal welfare regulations. Everyone got the same question, everyone had two minutes to answer. There were no personal attacks and few sound bites. Supporters in the audience were strongly discouraged from waving signs or making a ruckus.

At the end came a chance to appeal directly to the audience.

"I come to Washington, not to look at what's right and left, but what's right and wrong," Klobuchar said, ticking off a list of farm-friendly bills she pushed with the bipartisan cooperation of Republican senators. "Courage in the next year in Washington is not going to be people that stand alone like 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' It's whether or not you're willing to stand next to someone that you don't always agree with for the betterment of this country. That is how we're going to move ahead as Americans."

Bills pitched his Senate bid as a way to put the classroom lessons he teaches about living within one's means into actual policy.

"When you try to fulfill every want, you're going to wind up not having enough to fulfill your needs," he said. "We need more farmers, and more of our kids going into agricultural industries so we can be more like North Dakota and less like Washington, D.C."

Cultivating farmers

Farmfest is an election-year rite for Minnesota politicians, and after six years in office, Klobuchar knows her way around. After the forum, she threaded through rows of tents to accept an endorsement from the Minnesota Farmers Union.

"We appreciate her support and we want to be there for her support, too," said Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, whose members have been watching anxiously as crops wither in their fields and the calendar creeps closer to Sept. 30, when the current farm bill expires.

Klobuchar made the rounds, flanked by volunteers in Klobuchar shirts, handing out "Farmers for Klobuchar" bumper stickers.

Bills, meanwhile, fielded questions from reporters, then excused himself, saying he hadn't seen his family in days. He scooped up his young daughter and headed out to see if he could find her a pink tractor among the giant farm machines on display around them.

The Bills family hit the Farm Bureau's pork-chop-on-a-stick booth, then left for the next campaign stop. Klobuchar headed back to the big tent, to headline another forum and work the crowds.

Farmfest is no county fair. There are no barns full of baby goats; no pie judging contests. Fairs are for tourists. Farmfest is for the hard-core farmers, who come to check out the latest machinery, tools or seed varieties.

But this sprawling agricultural trade show is still a great place to people-watch, particularly if the people you enjoy watching are Minnesota politicians and political hopefuls.

"You learn a lot here," said Ethan Roberts, director of government affairs in the Twin Cities for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, who made the two-hour-plus drive to watch the candidates in action. "All Minnesotans need to care about agriculture. It's the food we eat, it's the fuel that drives our cars. These issues don't get the attention they deserve."

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049