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Pick an issue and the top three candidates seem to be on another page

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's U.S. Senate race pits a former war protester against two candidates who protest continuing the Iraq war.

Pick a major issue and it is likely Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken disagree. Nowhere is it more evident than on the war.

Coleman, who in college protested the Vietnam War, supported the Iraq war effort early on but later raised concerns over the U.S. reconstruction effort. He has called for more Iraqi involvement in reconstruction and a secondary role for American troops. He opposes legislative efforts to end the war through withdrawal timelines.

That decision, he said, must be made in consultation with generals on the ground, "not Congress setting arbitrary deadlines based on political considerations."

"I want to get out of Iraq as quick as anybody," Coleman said. "I want to get out safely."

Coleman's war position is a reason Franken is running for Senate. While the former comedian also initially supported the war, he later spoke out against it and criticized the Bush administration for misleading the country in the run-up to the war. He frequently calls out Coleman for saying the war was not a mistake and for refusing to side with mostly Democrats in Congress who have sought to end it.

Franken wants Congress to pass a timetable for troop withdrawal, forcing stepped-up Iraqi involvement. He said some funding targeted for the U.S. effort in Iraq should be redirected to the war in Afghanistan.

"We have created a culture of dependency on our presence there," Franken said. "It's time now to bring our troops home and when they come home, give them the honor and respect they deserve."

The Iraq war is an issue on which Franken and Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley generally agree. Barkley said once the U.S. invaded, it had a responsibility to stabilize Iraq, but now it is time to withdraw troops.

"I think we have done enough," he said.

Behind the multi-million-dollar Senate race are candidates -- competing for a $169,300-a-year job -- who fundamentally disagree on many other issues. Franken discussed their differences in two extensive interviews; Coleman's campaign made him available for a brief interview.

The recent Wall Street crisis cemented the economy as voters' top issue, and Coleman and Franken have staked out differing positions on economic recovery.

Coleman voted for the Wall Street bailout package, and has said it will take time to work. After it passed, Franken said he would have opposed it. Barkley outlined concerns he had with the initial proposal but said he would have supported what Congress passed.

Coleman said opposing the package also would have meant voting against wind-energy tax credits important to Minnesota and mental-health legislation Franken previously championed. Franken said he did not like that the bailout was rushed through Congress.

Congress should address the ailing economy by imposing regulations on new investment techniques in the banking industry, Franken said. He also favors placing a moratorium on some mortgage foreclosures and expanding the ability for homeowners and lenders to negotiate new finance terms. Additionally, he has said the U.S. should divert some funds from future Iraqi reconstruction to domestic infrastructure. That will create jobs and improve highways and bridges, he said.

Passage of a new energy plan would help get the economy back on track, and a congressional deal is near, Coleman said.

"It would be a confidence booster that we're serious about dealing with long-term problems," he said, adding that progress on health-care reform would provide a similar confidence boost.

The senator also has called for more oversight of the mortgage industry, saying regulations exist but there is inadequate oversight and transparency.

Their economic differences extend to tax policy. Coleman favors making Bush income tax cuts permanent, claiming they help the economy. He said repealing them would hurt families and businesses.

Meanwhile, Franken proposes ending the tax cuts for people earning more than $1 million and using the money to provide college tuition tax credits for families earning up to $200,000 annually. It is becoming increasingly difficult for middle-class Minnesotans to afford college, he said.