Years ago, we used to call it silly season.

It was the period of summer, usually August, when newspapers were fat with advertising but there was little real news. Seemingly trivial stories would be inflated into long-running serials, and items usually buried in the back section made the front page.

The current New York City “mosque” controversy is a good example.

But silly season is a crucial time for those Mainers running for governor. The pre-Labor Day period helps shape the fall race, when voters are actually paying attention.

In that respect, Eliot Cutler, reputedly the leading independent in a five-candidate field, had an off week.

Republican Paul LePage stumbled earlier, when, during a whistlestop train tour, he joked about Democrat Libby Mitchell’s age, and leveled an apparently fictional charge that Democrats had slurred his Franco heritage. He’s been quiet since, emerging for mostly predictable speeches about downsizing state government, without specifics.

Not so with Cutler. His detailed plans to reshape government have received much attention, including proposals to abolish the Board of Environmental Protection as a bureaucratic impediment, and scrapping annual car inspections as a waste of time.

Cutler needs this coverage. He doesn’t have a party behind him, so the strength of his proposals is critical to winning votes. He’ll have to convince a big slice of independents, plus Republicans and Democrats unhappy with their nominee, that he knows a lot more about state government, and can implement his proposed changes.

So it’s surprising that, given the spotlight, he flubbed his lines.

The BEP seems fairly safe. Not many Mainers could easily identify what it does – it’s the citizen board reviewing rulings by the Department of Environmental Protection staff, the real bureaucracy. But pretty much every Mainer knows something about vehicle inspections, a rite of car ownership since the 1920s.

Cutler has cleverly paired his opposition to car inspections to a proposal to increase the gasoline tax. The latter, given the crumbling state of roads, is practically a no-brainer, but Cutler doesn’t want to be branded a tax-and-spender. So the tax increase would be balanced by elimination of the $12.50 inspection fee, and the safety repairs that often go with it.

But when challenged on the issue by another independent, Shawn Moody, Cutler significantly misrepresented it.

Cutler told MPBN that “there’s absolutely no evidence” of a correlation between inspections and accidents, which seems debatable. State Police believe the proportion of accidents attributable to safety defects is significantly lower here than in states without safety checks.

But Cutler is far off the mark with his claim that “37 states have abandoned” inspections.

It appears that exactly one state recently dropped safety inspections, — New Jersey, where it was a campaign pledge of a new Republican governor elected last year – and there everyone has to have annual Clean Air Act emissions tests. That would be true in Maine, too, where Cumberland County drivers need annual pollution tests.

Websites that purport to track state inspections are a mess, with many obvious errors. You can get a much better idea by checking state Division of Motor Vehicle listings.

Suffice it to say that there are far more than 13 states requiring safety inspections. Some states have intervals longer than a year, and others do the job through random stops by State Police — you need to keep your vehicle up to date even without inspections. Between those with highway stops and those with inspection stations or (as in Maine) stickers from private garages, a majority of states require inspections.

Perhaps more to the point, all of the other New England states, normally seen as Maine’s peers, have safety inspection requirements; New Hampshire once required them every six months. And all but Vermont have emissions tests. Cutler depicts Maine’s rules as hidebound relics, rather than the mainstream policies they are.

It wouldn’t be the first time. The Maine Heritage Policy Center thought it had cooked up a sure-fire winner in its 2009 referendum to slash the municipal excise tax on new cars, which was successful for another new Republican governor elected in 1997 in Virginia. Maine voters squashed it by a 3-1 margin, an astonishing fate for a tax cut proposal.

Mainers take their cars seriously. Anyone whose inspection turned up a serious defect – like corroded brake lines – might see $12.50 a year as reasonable.

If Eliot Cutler is to create the kind of enthusiasm for reform that his campaign needs, he’s going to have to do better than this.

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