MANKATO — Candidates for Minnesota's next governor got to show their personalities to southern Minnesota voters in the first large-scale forum in the region Thursday night.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-1st District; Hennepin County Commissioner and GOP endorsee Jeff Johnson; and DFL endorsee state Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul talked statewide issues inside the Verizon Center.

Each candidate largely voiced familiar platforms and positions for their respective parties. Walz and Murphy emphasized focusing on more opportunities and funding for everyone from farmers to school districts. Johnson outlined his small government values and pledged to cut state spending.

What stood out was the way candidates presented themselves to the audience. Walz took advantage of his home crowd to crack jokes and stress his record in Congress. He appeared to be the most animated candidate throughout most of the forum — even Johnson noted Walz's performance after Walz said he didn't visit Greater Minnesota, he woke up here every day.

"That was a good line," Johnson said.

Murphy highlighted her record in the Minnesota Legislature and her time as a registered nurse. Johnson touted his view on holding the state accountable for the money it spends and his principled approach to government as a county commissioner.

All three stressed their rural backgrounds — Walz is a longtime Mankato resident, while Johnson grew up in central Minnesota and Murphy was raised in southern Wisconsin.

And each took some swipes at a common enemy: Republican candidate and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who declined to attend weeks before Thursday's forum. DFL candidate and Attorney General Lori Swanson was scheduled to participate in the forum but pulled out earlier this week due to a family emergency.

All three made mention of Pawlenty at various points in the forum. Each candidate also got the chance to score political points against the former governor during the forum when they were asked what Pawlenty should be asked if he had participated Thursday night.

Murphy wanted to know what Pawlenty would do differently in office to avoid putting the state into a $6 billion deficit. Walz wanted to know why Pawlenty thinks Minnesota should go backward as a state. Johnson, Pawlenty's opponent in the Aug. 14 primary, wanted to know how Pawlenty thinks he could win an election in November if he won't talk with Minnesotans.

The candidates found some common ground on issues such as transportation, broadband and workforce development (more focus and funding is needed). Each candidate also promised to concentrate on education issues if they were elected. Yet they fell largely on party lines when discussing how they would serve as governor.

Walz and Murphy both support a gas tax increase to pay for more transportation and transit services. Johnson doesn't support a gas tax, but he would consider using public works funding or general fund money to pay for more road and bridge fixes.

On immigration, Johnson greatly differs from Walz and Murphy. Whereas the DFLers want to make Minnesota more encouraging to immigrants and refugees who come to the state for work, Johnson believes Minnesota needs to cut down on immigration and should temporarily end its refugee resettlement program until communities can calculate how much it costs to address refugee needs.

In issues such as child care and agriculture, the DFLers advocated for targeted community funding while Johnson supported deregulation efforts and reforms.

The forum comes less than three weeks before the Aug. 14 primary. Walz said after the forum he plans to tout a broad appeal and his new proposal to target funding for communities across the state, dubbed the "One Minnesota Community Prosperity Plan," over the next few weeks.

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