Republican gubernatorial candidates discuss Trump, conservative records in first debate

- We're just 11 days away from the primary elections in Minnesota and today, the Republican candidates for governor met in their first broadcast debate.

Former Governor Tim Pawlenty is running for his old job and is taking on Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson who has the party's official endorsement.

One of the first questions today at MPR studios in St. Paul was about the statements the two candidates have made about each other in ads and interviews.

Pawlenty called Johnson a "tax and spend career politician," while Johnson said Pawlenty's tenure as governor was a disappointment to conservatives.

“I think this is just kind of old school politics, this is strategy from 10 or 20 years ago which is you're not out there engaging with voters, you're sitting in a room raising money and then you spend the money to attack your opponent in this case, a very dishonest way,” Johnson said of his opponent.

“All it is talk, and eventually you have to walk the walk, you can't just talk the talk. And he is a poseur in the sense he talks about these things and doesn't do them,” Pawlenty said.

The two men also said they would welcome an endorsement from President Donald Trump in the race if he chooses to endorse.

The President has stepped in before Republican primaries in several states this cycle, most recently in Georgia.

Then the candidates clashed about their criticism about President Donald Trump in the run up to the 2016 election.

“I supported him, you told people not to vote for him. Big difference,” said Johnson.

“You called him a jackass and now he's your hero,” Pawlenty said. “And I appreciate and respect what he's doing as well.”

“To put the full record on, I voted for President Trump. But you thought he was unfit to be president. I reacted to the Access Hollywood tapes,” Pawlenty added.

The two men also talked about their views on taxes and spending, abortion and immigration.

One of the flash points was who is the true conservative: Pawlenty or Johnson?

While the candidates may not be all that far apart on the issues, they do have differences in style.

The tense exchanges between the candidates came early and often.

“You had a chance. You had your opportunity, this privilege for eight years to just fundamentally reform government in a conservative way,” Johnson said.

“Which of those, Jeff, have you done in your entire career?” Pawlenty asked.

“Hey Tim, I've never been a governor,” Johnson replied.

As the primary campaign enters the final stretch, the two candidates are looking for an edge. They are critiquing the others' record and saying what they would do if they were elected.

Johnson says the first place he would look to cut state spending would be the department of Human Services.

“Are they actually changing people's lives or not?” Johnson asked. “Are they actually making them self-sufficient? So to me that's the starting point.”

Pawlenty says he would start with waste, referencing a Fox 9 investigation uncovering alleged daycare fraud.

If you redeployed that into more mental health beds, or lowering the insurance for people struggling to keep up with their insurance costs, they would make a big and measurable difference and there are dozens of those examples.

The two men also weighed in on immigration and refugee resettlement and how it impacts the state.

“We should be for legal immigration, but you have to have your head in the sand, to not recognize the country has a crisis in terms of illegal immigration,” said Pawlenty.

“Some of the horrible things people say about you and your family in trying to shut down the discussion so that we can't even talk about it, that's really sad and we've got to get past that,” said Johnson.

Johnson won the party's endorsement at its convention in Duluth and Pawlenty decided to continue his campaign anyway.

There are three Democrats running for the DFL nomination: Erin Murphy, Tim Walz and Lori Swanson.

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