When the campaign for GOP gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage last week announced that it was hiring a press secretary, the reaction from his political allies and opponents sounded something like, "Whew, it's about time!" and "Ha, the damage is done!"
Despite their competing interests, both sides seem to share a similar belief: That LePage's controversial statements and media entanglements are subverting his bid for the Blaine House.
But is that true?
Support for the conventional wisdom was the recent release of a Critical Insights poll showing that LePage's double-digit lead over Democrat Libby Mitchell had vaporized, presumably because of his now infamous dust-up with reporters and his puzzling attempts to rationalize it.
The LePage-is-imploding narrative gained momentum last week when he appeared in a campaign stop video saying he'd tell President Obama to "go to hell" if elected governor. The video was accompanied by an MPBN interview in which LePage said he was about "to punch" reporter A.J. Higgins. (Whether or not he meant it probably depends on whether the viewer's worldview is colored with hues of red or blue.)
The "go to hell" video made national headlines. Last week, on NBC Nightly News, LePage's comments were the third lead story, paired with New York's tea party-backed gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino's altercation with New York Post state editor Fredric U. Dicker. (Dicker uses the middle initial in his byline, making for interesting reader comments.)
Paladino's confrontation ended with him telling Dicker, "I'll take you out," a threat that, unlike LePage's "punch" comment, leaves little room for subjective interpretation.
Interestingly, Paladino's threat appears to have done little to erode his support. Many reader comments — admittedly a dangerous place to take the public pulse — were critical of Dicker, both for elbowing his way past Paladino's handlers and, apparently, for challenging the candidate's accusations.
The comments are not unlike those accompanying LePage's various controversies. Supporters have applauded him for standing up to the "liberal media," "the elite" and "the establishment." In short, for telling it like it is.
LePage saying he'd tell Obama "to go to hell," the comments said, showed the Waterville mayor is plainspoken, unencumbered by the shackles of political correctness.
The upshot: LePage's lack of polish is an asset, not a deficiency. His apparent anger — at Augusta, Obama, liberal media — is reflective of an angry, dissatisfied public.
This election year, GOP candidates nationally are trafficking anger the same way Obama and Democrats in 2008 peddled hope and change.
Ben Quayle, Arizona's GOP candidate for Congress, has promised to "knock the hell out of the place."
Paladino is unapologetic about his rage. On his website paladinoforthepeople.com, a digital Paladino strolls out from behind the home page to tell visitors about his credentials for governor, including that "he is mad as hell" at Albany's "ruling class" and "mad at dysfunctional government" that will soon experience the "thunder of a revolution."
Paladino, visitors quickly learn, is an angry dude.
Say what you will about anger as a qualification for governance, you can say the same thing about hope. Both are just emotions, but they mobilizes voters, particularly those with malleable beliefs on issues.
Republicans, as well as tea partiers, know this, which is probably why so many GOP candidates are wielding anger like a chained mace in 2010.
During a recent interview, independent gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody discussed how LePage had tapped the voters' rage. Moody, who seems incapable of fury, sounded almost envious.
All of which raises several questions about LePage's hiring Dan Demeritt, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins' political director in 1996.
Will polishing LePage's media image actually subvert his appeal with a base that has portrayed his rough entanglements as a refreshing break from the forked tongues of "career politicians?"
Or has LePage's campaign calculated that victory will come only by quelling uneasiness about LePage's temperament among moderate Republicans?
Has Team LePage essentially decided that his base will support him no matter what he says or does?
We'll know for certain after Nov. 2.
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