LEWISTON — Allegations and denials were served up along with breakfast Wednesday as the top three candidates running for the U.S. Senate in Maine all seemed to go on the offensive during a nearly hourlong forum before the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce.
Maine Secretary of State and Republican candidate Charlie Summers again seemed to focus on distinguishing himself from the candidate viewed as his top rival, former Maine governor and independent candidate Angus King.
At one point Summers said King, while governor, vetoed legislation that would have increased by $200,000 funding for the state's Meals On Wheels program and then "dropped $21 million" on a statewide laptop program for middle school students.
"You have to ask yourself, 'What's important?'" Summers said. "People being able to feed themselves or laptops?"
King said the bill was one of 23 he vetoed as he tried to check state government spending. He said it was a tough decision, but it was about sending a signal that "enough is enough in terms of spending."
In a round of questioning later, King adamantly defended the statewide laptop program he instituted.
"The laptop project was all about opportunity," King said. "It was all about opportunity for all the kids of Maine. Giving them the opportunity to have the key and the tool for the 21st century. I don't apologize for that. It led the country and in fact it's leading the world. That was all about equality of opportunity for every child in every town."
All three candidates seemed to be trying to define themselves as moderate politicians or as people who could craft compromise. They also spent time refuting the way they've been described by their opponents.
Summers said he had no intention of doing away with the federal Social Security or Medicare programs.
"Let me be clear from the onset," Summers said. "I will not support and will work against legislation that will cut benefits from people who are currently receiving Social Security or Medicare, people who have worked all their lives and have earned those benefits and deserve those benefits."
He also spoke about how his young family benefited from Social Security after his first wife died about 15 years ago and he was left to raise two young children as a single parent.
His children, 8 and 11 at the time, were eligible and received survivors' benefits from their mother's Social Security.
"I had to make certain that that awful event in their lives did not affect who they became, and one of the things that helped us through that period of time was Social Security," Summers said. "I think it's critically important to lay out very clearly I will not do that."
But he said there still had to be a discussion and a debate about the program and about who should have access to it and what the retirement age ought to be.
Summers also took a jab at King: "Those who are wealthy like Gov. King maybe will not be able to get as much from Social Security."
State Sen. Cynthia Dill, the Cape Elizabeth Democrat in the race, quipped, "There they go again," as the two men exchanged barbs.
Dill got in on the action, blaming a "faction of extremists" within the Republican Party for the gridlock that's crippling Congress.
"I reject this notion that there is equal blame on both parties for the partisan gridlock," Dill said. "Their agenda is to take America back, to repeal women's rights, to deregulate Wall Street, to make the rich people richer. It's a bad situation, but it's not the fault of all of the Democrats."
Dill also tried to cast herself as a moderate who would side with President Barack Obama on health care and the elimination of tax cuts for those making more than $250,000, would reach across party lines and would make deals in Washington that were good for Maine and the country.
She, too, went on the offensive, challenging Summers' positions on energy.
"My friend Charlie Summers thinks that nuclear power plants are our energy future, supports the Keystone pipeline and doesn't think climate change is actually a problem that humans contribute to," she said.
Like King, Dill said she supports a diverse solution to the country's energy problems, including renewable power sources such as wind, solar and tidal. But unlike King, she said she did not believe the process of hydro-fracturing for natural gas was safe or environmentally sound. She charged King with supporting the Keystone pipeline project.
She took one more jab at both men as she urged voters to look at the differences between candidates before deciding in November.
"I hope you actually explore the differences when it comes to the issues and put aside some of this bickering about money because, let's face it, that's one thing they both have in common," Dill said, drawing a handful of chuckles from around the room.
About 300 chamber members were in attendance, according to organizers.
The three other independents in the race, Danny Dalton of Bath, Steve Woods of Falmouth and Andrew Ian Dodge of Harpswell, were not invited to participate in the forum.