AUGUSTA — The first televised debate between Maine’s three candidates for governor grew so feisty last Wednesday night that one candidate — independent Eliot Cutler — kind of apologized the next day for taking too hard a jab at one of his opponents, Democrat Mike Michaud.
Meanwhile, Maine political observers and others who parse every word that each candidate utters and analyze every campaign action are watching to see if the third candidate, Republican Gov. Paul LePage, shows up with props as he did during the first debate.
With little more than two weeks before Election Day, many voters are tuning in to the debates in hopes of seeing or hearing something that makes up their minds, elevating the stakes for candidates on Monday night. As the gubernatorial debates wrap up this week, LePage, Michaud and Cutler will have little time to overcome a gaffe or poor impression.
The Bangor Daily News and media partner CBS 13 are teaming up to host the debate at 7 p.m. Monday. The hour-long debate will be broadcast on WGME and streamed at bangordailynews.com.
If the dynamics of this election are going to change, now is the time. Michaud and LePage have been locked in a neck-and-neck contest for about a year, while Cutler has been a distant third place. However, based on his 11th-hour rise to a second-place finish behind LePage in 2010, Cutler holds out hope for another late surge, especially among “anybody but LePage” voters.
The polls aren’t much help. Polls have consistently shown LePage and Michaud in a tight race, and few showing leads larger than the margin of error. In recent weeks, poll aggregators have been showing the Republican and Democrat within a point of each other. A BDN-sponsored online poll from a survey done Oct. 6-12 showed Michaud with a lead, though a Rasmussen Reports poll done Oct. 7-9 gave LePage the edge. Those are the only two public polls that surveyed voters this month. Poll aggregators that consider poll data dating back weeks consider the two candidates to be within a percentage point of each other. Cutler has consistently polled in the midteens.
LePage and Michaud are trying to show undecided voters that they are not just partisan hacks. The pool of voters who are undecided between LePage and Michaud must be tiny, given the divisiveness of LePage’s first term in office versus Michaud’s three-decade history of holding elected office as a Democrat. Regardless, both candidates have been the subject of political advertisements in recent days that featured Republicans coming out for Michaud and Democrats coming out for LePage. Fewer than 10 percent of poll respondents are identifying themselves as undecided, but given that polls show a razor-thin margin between the two major-party candidates, winning the majority of that sliver of the electorate could decide the election.
What to expect
LePage’s approach won’t change much. The governor has performed well in the prior debates, including two that weren’t televised. He has been lively and entertaining and, especially in the televised debate, has taken a forceful approach in laying out the issues as he sees them. As has been the case throughout his tenure as governor, LePage has been unapologetic about his deeply conservative ideology, even going as far as saying during Wednesday’s debate that ideas he doesn’t deem good enough go straight into the trash. This attitude undoubtedly pleases LePage’s die-hard supporters but reinforces a central and well-worn Democratic argument that LePage is a “my way or the highway” governor. To counter Michaud’s claim that he is better equipped to achieve bipartisan accord, LePage has recently begun to emphasize that hundreds of bills that became law since he took office were sponsored by Democrats
Michaud has to do a better job of responding to attacks from his opponents. Much of Wednesday’s debate saw LePage and Cutler lobbing verbal salvoes at Michaud, which had the Democrat reeling and on the defensive. While Michaud suffered some bruises, the fact that he remained composed through the onslaught reinforced his reputation — or at least the reputation he and his supporters are trying to convey — as a steady, principled hand at the till. It also reinforced his reputation as a poor debater, which he acknowledged and tried to turn to an advantage by saying he is a better listener than orator. That nuance may escape some voters, though, and his advisers likely know it. Expect Michaud to have scripted responses and probably some zingers Monday when he is attacked again.
Cutler has done little to dispel the notion that he is smart but pompous and sometimes mean. For a year, the independent focused on rolling out a series of policy proposals that he has repeatedly framed as “bold ideas.” Recent weeks have seen him going more on the attack, primarily against Michaud, and probably because of his stagnation in the polls. After jabbing Michaud by saying, “Listen to this, Mike, you’ll learn something,” Cutler tried to walk back the attack and even offered a sort-of apology the next day, though he said rather awkwardly that he was more sorry to his staff than to Michaud. Much of the buzz about Cutler since then has been that he came across as arrogant and maybe insulting. Expect him to tone it down from here on out.
What about the issues?
The FairPoint Communications strike that began on Friday adds a new dimension. LePage has established himself firmly as an anti-union governor with several legislative attempts and statements in support of making Maine a “right to work” state, which means unions would be barred from charging fees for collective bargaining and other services. Michaud, a former millworker who still holds a union card, visited FairPoint picket lines Friday to show solidarity with union members. They’ll undoubtedly clash on whether labor unions protect individual workers from being taken advantage of or whether they drive businesses and jobs elsewhere.
Where is welfare reform? LePage and his Republican allies began a relentless crusade on this issue in late 2013. It didn’t come up last Wednesday, but LePage is likely to pivot to it Monday. Even though both Michaud and Cutler also support a degree of welfare reform, articulating that they agree while arguing that LePage’s positions are too extreme may well be a losing proposition, especially in a debate format where they are limited to very short answers.