AUGUSTA — The three candidates for governor got their chance to go on the offensive Wednesday evening during a freewheeling debate in Augusta.
Wednesday’s debate, televised by WCSH-TV, was the first of the five gubernatorial debates to allow the candidates to directly interact with each other. Given the opportunity, Republican Gov. Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler directed their first and most pointed criticisms at Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.
LePage — often portrayed by his political opponents as either unwilling or unable to work across the aisle — said Michaud talks a good bipartisan game, but voted too frequently with Democrats in Congress.
“In the last 12 years as a congressman, you have voted 93 percent the way (House Democratic Leader) Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leaders have asked you to vote,” LePage said.
Michaud said he had worked with congressional leadership behind the scenes on bills such as the Affordable Care Act to ensure they were in the best interest of Mainers before they came to the floor for a vote.
“It’s about working across the aisle to get things done. It’s not about headlines,” Michaud said.
Cutler attacked Michaud on a different front — social issues. Michaud is currently a pro-choice Democrat who supports same-sex marriage and other core LGBT rights. But he wasn’t always so, a point Cutler was eager to make.
Michaud said his stance on abortion and gay marriage had evolved as he had conversations with constituents, but Cutler said it was too little, too late.
“He says he’s the only candidate who’s cast a pro-choice vote, that he’s the only one with a record. But he’s also the only person on this stage who cast anti-choice votes for 27 years,” Cutler said.
The Democrat spent little of his time on Cutler, reflecting his contention that the race for the Blaine House is a two-way contest pitting him against LePage. But he did fire back at Cutler after his record was questioned.
“Yes, I have evolved on that issue. But what is wrong with evolving?” Michaud said.
Michaud also said it was easy for Cutler to say how he would have voted because the independent had never actually had to cast a vote. He also suggested that Cutler was challenging his record simply because he was upset that prominent gay rights and pro-choice groups such as Equality Maine and Planned Parenthood had endorsed him rather than Cutler.
Michaud, not known as a strong debater, made an early effort to lower expectations and highlight his campaign’s theme that he is a collaborative deal maker by saying he’s a good listener, but not a good orator.
Playing to that perceived Michaud weakness, Cutler and LePage took the offensive. Both sought to tear down the Democrat’s base of support by trying to convince voters that he’s a political insider who lacks leadership skills.
Still, it wasn’t just Michaud who found himself in the hot seat. He and Cutler both criticized LePage’s five vetoes of bills to accept federal dollars for Medicaid expansion, a key provision of the Affordable Care Act.
Proponents of expanding Medicaid eligibility in Maine, including Cutler and Michaud, said the expansion would provide health care to more low-income Mainers and be an economic boon to the state.
“Governor, someone is watching us right now, is going without life-changing medication because of your five vetoes,” Michaud said. “Would you be able to look into the camera and tell those people why they were too costly to care (for)?”
Cutler based his argument for expansion on the fact that Maine hospitals support it.
LePage and his allies have argued that expansion would direct resources away from care for Maine’s disabled and elderly residents and will cost the state millions of dollars in the long term. And while LePage held firm, he said there should be no question about his desire to help the poor.
“I understand poverty, because I lived it,” LePage said, alluding to his well-known story of poverty and hardship as a child in Lewiston. He said the only way to lift poor Mainers from poverty is to grow the state’s economy and per-capita income by lowering the cost of energy.
Cutler also criticized LePage for a deal his administration made with Cate Street Capital, an investment firm that received several state loan guarantees in an effort to prevent the Millinocket region’s Great Northern Paper mill from closing for good. Despite those loan guarantees, the mill closed, hundreds of workers were laid off and the mill declared bankruptcy.
Cutler called the deal “corporate welfare,” but LePage said he’d do it again. That didn’t sit well with the independent candidate, who said he had spent a lot of time in Millinocket.
“I can’t find anyone there who thinks it’s a good deal,” Cutler said.
The most recent statewide poll — an online survey of 540 likely voters conducted Oct. 6-12 by Ipsos for the Bangor Daily News — showed Michaud leading LePage by 6 points, 42 percent to 36 percent, with Cutler’s support at 16 percent.
However, polling trends as compiled by aggregators such as Real Clear Politics and Huffington Post show the race between Michaud and LePage tighter than ever, with Cutler far behind.
Two more gubernatorial debates, both of which will be televised, are scheduled for next week. The CBS 13/Bangor Daily News debate is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 20. The final debate, broadcast live by WMTW-TV and WABI-TV, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 21.