Mondale, a former vice president, last Thursday replaced Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., on Tuesday's general election ballot. Wellstone was killed in a plane crash Oct. 25.
The debate, sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio and KARE-TV, St. Paul, was seen as key to the campaign because of its compressed nature. Callers to Minnesota Public Radio before the debate said they know who Mondale was but they don't know who he is today and they find that lack of information troubling.
Mondale began lecturing Coleman, whom he repeatedly called "Norman," when the debate turned to possible war with Iraq. When Coleman said he thought Mondale had misquoted Secretary of State Colin Powell's position on Iraq and U.N. support for possible military action, Mondale said, "Then you haven't been listening," and proceeded to explain why world support is necessary for any U.S. action.
Mondale said North Korea poses more of a threat than Iraq because it already has nuclear weapons. He then pointed out the administration is doing exactly what he recommends in that case rather than issuing "bellicose statements" like those that have punctuated the Iraq debate.
"We're strong when we have the world with us," Mondale said.
The two candidates also talked about the homeland security bill stalled in the Senate. Mondale said the administration should allow the new department's employees to be covered by civil service.
"What is wrong with allowing these employees to have civil service protection?" he asked. "I don't see anything wrong with that."
He said there's no reason Congress should say "yes to everything the president wants."
Coleman said if he's sent to Washington he would work for compromise on the issue.
Coleman criticized the Senate's failure to approve a House-passed measure providing some relief to seniors saddled by high prescription drug costs, saying it's better to get something done than nothing done.
Mondale, however, pointed out the measure was backed by drug companies and did little to ease the financial burden for most seniors.
On Social Security, Mondale criticized Coleman's support of proposals to move some of the funds to private investment.
"We all know what's happening with the stock market," Mondale said.
The debate turned testy as the candidates talked about judicial appoints, which have been bogged down in Senate Judiciary Committee.
"I keep saying change the tone," Coleman said in his effort to convince voters he would be better at bipartisan compromise than Mondale, who spent 12 years in the Senate before becoming Jimmy Carter's vice president and stressed if elected, he would immediately become part of the leadership.
"What you're doing is sticking with the right wing and pretending to change the tone," Mondale shot back. "It's not the fluff of the words you use. ... We've seen you shift around. ... You have to take responsibility for the position you're taking.
Coleman criticized Mondale for his experience in the last two decades on corporate boards.
"It's charming to hear a Republican worried about a Democrat who knows something about business," Mondale said.
The two also clashed on abortion with Mondale criticizing Coleman's support of a constitutional amendment against abortion.
"You're standing with the right-to-life crowd," Mondale said. "... This is about constitutional principle and you're on the wrong side of this."
Coleman, citing the deaths of two of his children, responded, "I have a deep and profound respect for the value of life."
The candidates also touched on the economy and the accounting scandals that have made headlines in recent months.
In their closing statements, both candidates cited their political experience, Coleman emphasizing his time as a Republican mayor in a Democratic city and Mondale emphasizing his ability to be independent.
"The first question you must as is, "Who do you trust? Who do you believe will go to Washington and be a truly independent voice?" Mondale asked.