ST. PAUL — Minnesota Republicans vying for the state's GOP endorsement on Wednesday, Nov. 3, faced off for the first time at Minnesota State University at Mankato. And in their first foray, the five candidates took more swipes at Gov. Tim Walz than at one another.

Former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, former state Sen. Scott Jensen, Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy, dermatologist Neil Shah and entrepreneur Mike Marti each used their time in the hour-and-a-half debate to put down the first-term Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest following George Floyd's murder and DFL legislative priorities.

And they said that on the heels of a Republican win in Virginia and near-flip in New Jersey, they were hopeful that a GOP candidate could take the Minnesota governor's office in 2022. Sen. Michelle Benson, who is also running for governor, could not attend the debate due to a scheduling conflict.

"Wow the Democrats got a whooping last night," Murphy said. "We saw that in Virginia and we can do that in Minnesota. We just have to pick the candidate that can take on the tyrant Tim Walz."

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Taking aim at the administration's stay-at-home orders and mask mandates, Jensen and Gazelka said the state's COVID-19 response had been too extreme and they would've trusted people to make decisions to limit the virus' spread.

“Those are a one-size-fits-all approach and it doesn’t work,” Jensen, a physician who has been flagged for spreading false information about the coronavirus, said. And Gazelka told the audience that he would've attempted to lead by giving people information and a choice to make rather than a stick.

“You don’t lead with a stick, you lead with influence and help people be informed to do the right thing,” Gazelka said.

The candidates shared many ideas around limiting taxes, boosting law enforcement staffing, ensuring second amendment rights and taking a more lax approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. But a couple seemed to criticize those who'd previously held elected office for not doing enough to push conservative policies.

"Career politicians in St. Paul won't stand up for gun rights," Shah said. "While the House is under Democratic control, they continue to pass anti-gun bills, where is the Senate passing pro-gun legislation?"

Gazelka pointed to his experience leading the Minnesota Senate and said it would be an asset if elected, as it meant he could govern. And he tried to dispel the "career politician" monicker.

"The person you should be looking for is somebody who already knows how to govern," he told attendees. "We can't just have somebody who gets 45% and does same old, same old; we need somebody who knows how to build bigger and broader bridges."

Walz has said he'll seek reelection for a second term in 2022. And on Wednesday, he told reporters at the Mall of America vaccine clinic that he remained focused on the state's rollout of COVID-19 immunizations to children 5-11, as well as other efforts to respond to the pandemic.

“I was elected to do the job here in Minnesota. I don’t spend a lot of time watching what other races do,” the governor said. “The people of Minnesota over the next year, they’ll decide where they’re at. I’ll keep focusing on the things that matter, and right now, it’s this.”

Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a progressive advocacy group, following the debate said the Republicans continued to "peddle the same empty promises and dangerous ideas" on pandemic response and public health.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com