UPDATED: 11:56 a.m.
PORTLAND — After months of drama and political posturing over whether gubernatorial debates would take place at all, Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler took the stage together for the first time Wednesday in Portland.
The topics were predictable, given the host: The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, the first of three chamber-affiliated groups to host a debate this month, focused on questions centered around development, jobs and the economy.
Each Blaine House contender offered different takes on the problems facing Maine, and the solutions, during the roughly hour-long event at the Holiday Inn by the Bay. The policy proposals were largely variations on the themes Mainers have been hearing for the last several months of the campaign. But each candidate did get in a few punches, and two of them even had a hug.
The debate format was crafted to prevent too many sparks, with no allowances for rebuttal time and no advance preview of the questions by the candidates. But that didn’t stop the candidates from getting in a few zingers while answering questions.
LePage and Michaud, the two front-runners in the race, mostly traded criticisms with one another while Cutler alternated between criticizing both of them, but reserved his most pointed barbs for the Democrat.
On the subject of economic growth, Cutler said Michaud didn’t have the experience necessary to lead: “Mike, you’ve worked across a lot of aisles, that I acknowledge,” Cutler said. “But you’ve never created a job, and you’ve never managed a business, ever.”
He also accused the Democrat of hypocrisy on the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which Michaud said was partially responsible for woes in Maine’s manufacturing sector.
“You blame NAFTA for the problems we’re facing, but you had the father of NAFTA [former U.S. President Bill Clinton] campaigning for you,” he said.
LePage was jovial in demeanor. He dismissively laughed and smiled as his opponents answered the moderator’s questions and repeatedly suggested his rivals didn’t have their facts straight. “If the Maine people would just take the opposite of what you just heard from these two opponents, you’ll be close to the truth,” he said.
He also reiterated a common theme of his campaign, which is that voters should look to his list of accomplishments, not his record of controversial statements and insults. “Even a Frenchman can be taught to cool down,” he said.
Michaud said LePage’s cuts to municipal revenue sharing were to blame for the impending closure of the Verso paper mill in Bucksport because municipalities raised property taxes to make up for the loss of state aid.
He also said that while the governor has touted his success repaying the hospitals nearly $800 million in Medicaid debt, LePage was simultaneously hurting the hospitals by making them pay out-of-pocket for care provided to low-income patients without insurance who would benefit from Medicaid expansion, which LePage vetoed five times.
“What the governor doesn’t talk about is that by vetoing that bill not once, but five times, he’s putting a debt on the hospitals,” Michaud said.
Michaud rarely addressed Cutler, and worked to define the contest as a two-way race pitting himself against LePage. And while Cutler did go after LePage for refusing the expand Medicaid and for his role in the botched takeover of Great Northern Paper by Cate Street Capital, the independent and Republican seemed almost friendly on stage; The two high-fived and even shared a hug on stage.
Those gestures and the generally genial tone between Cutler and LePage will undoubtedly be interpreted by some of symbolic of the Republican’s need to boost Cutler, who’s lagging badly in the polls. Many observers have said that without a stronger performance from the independent, LePage’s chances of winning are slim.
Because of his polling position and the attempt by Democrats to paint him as a possible “spoiler,” Cutler needed the debates to prove that he was still a contender. He used the first of the five debates to show off his oratory skill, which impressed at least a few in the audience.
“If I were Michaud, I’d be slightly worried,” said Ed McGarrity, business development officer for Maine Masonry, who said he believed Cutler and LePage both shined on stage. “I don’t think he came across as well as the others.”
However, most audience members interviewed by the BDN said they thought each of the candidates did well speaking to their perspective audiences.
Randy Finamore, president of retail operations for Goodwill of Northern New England, said that all the candidates presented their positions well, including Michaud, and that none of them brought anything to the debates that he hadn’t heard before.
“No big surprises for me,” he said.