LEWISTON — Against a backdrop of attack ads and indignant responses, the penultimate debate of the 2010 governor’s race was marked by civility and rehearsed position statements.
There were no game-changing performances.
Instead, four of the five gubernatorial candidates on Thursday appeared at Bates College’s Olin Concert Hall to hammer home messages oft-repeated on the campaign trail. With the election five days away, the candidates played it safe, even when presented with an opportunity to address one of the more controversial issues: the last-minute withdrawal of Republican candidate Paul LePage.
LePage, who continues to lead in the latest polls, pulled out of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network debate at 4 p.m. on Wednesday. According to MPBN’s Jennifer Rooks, the debate moderator, LePage’s camp committed to the debate in August and had called as recently as last week to go over the format.
LePage’s campaign said Wednesday that the candidate had decided to meet with voters instead. LePage campaign manager Dan Demeritt said Thursday that LePage spent his day conducting radio interviews, attending to matters in Waterville, where he is mayor, and conducting business at Marden’s, where he is general manager.
“He is a busy guy,” Demeritt said.
LePage’s absence was addressed several times during the debate. During the portion when candidates were allowed to ask each other a question, independent Eliot Cutler asked independent Kevin Scott how he felt about LePage missing an opportunity to communicate his message with the voters and business leaders of the state.
“It’s not important,” Scott said. “Let the voters decide.”
The candidates were also asked who they would vote for if they weren’t in the race.
Democrat Libby Mitchell said she’d vote for independent Shawn Moody. Scott said he’d write in his wife. Cutler said he’d “go fishing,” a reference to Mitchell’s earlier response that she once held a fishing license.
Moody, true to form, gave a candid response, saying the reason he entered the race late was because he didn’t like the choices on the ballot.
“That’s why I’m in the race,” he said.
The lightning round once again drew the most interesting responses.
When asked if they would raise the minimum wage, all but Mitchell said no.
When asked if they would legalize marijuana, only Scott said yes. Cutler said, “Not yet.”
The candidates were also asked if they would consider allowing communities the option of raising the sales tax. Moody and Scott said no, while Mitchell said she’d consider it. Cutler said he didn’t think individual communities should be allowed to do it, but he’d consider allowing counties to do so.
At one point, the candidates were asked to name another’s two best qualities. When describing Mitchell, Cutler said she had the most experience and was a “nice person.”
Even the most contentious issue of the week — negative ads launched against Cutler by the Maine Democratic Party and the Republican Party — was anti-climactic.
Moody, who has been calling on all candidates to “knock off” the attack ads, queried Mitchell about them.
Mitchell said all of the ads that go up “must be true.” She then turned to Cutler and said, “Even when asked to say something nice about me, you said I’d been in Augusta for three decades.”
“But you have. It’s true,” said Cutler, drawing laughter from the audience and Mitchell.
In his closing remarks, Cutler, who has passed Mitchell in two polls released Thursday, urged voters to pick him on Election Day.
“Together, we’re going to take off,” he said. “We’re going to take off and nobody’s going to stop us.”
Mitchell acknowledged that she picked “a tough year to run,” a nod to voter frustration with establishment candidates.
Scott emphasized his business acumen, while Moody said he didn’t want Maine politics to be about “showmanship.”
“I don’t care about politics,” he said. “I care about helping people.”
The final televised debate will air from 8 to 9 p.m. Saturday on WGME Channel 13.