LEWISTON — Despite repeated public requests that they step to the stage and square off in a policy debate, the leading candidates in Maine’s governor’s race — Republican incumbent Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud — are brushing off independent challenger Eliot Cutler.

Cutler has invited — in writing and in public statements — both LePage and Michaud to join him in debate at a venue in each of Maine’s 16 counties so voters can better compare the candidates prior to the November elections.

But so far the response from the Michaud and LePage campaigns has been tepid. On Tuesday, spokespeople for both campaigns said they were starting the process of planning for a series of fall debates but also said they had yet to lock in any dates.

LePage’s campaign spokesman, Brent Littlefield, also assailed Cutler as a, “liberal politician” who “would like as many opportunities as he can get to attack” LePage.

But, Littlefield wrote, LePage is “busy governing, building on the more than 17,000 jobs which have been created since he took office and continuing his welfare reforms.”

Michaud’s campaign spokeswoman, Lizzy Reinholt, wrote that the campaign has started to accept invitations for fall debates provided that all the candidates are invited to participate. She also noted that the debates Michaud plans to attend would be after the U.S. Congress recesses later this summer.

But Reinholt stopped short of mentioning Cutler by name.

“Mike looks forward to debating the issues with Gov. LePage and any other candidates in the race,” she wrote in an email to the Sun Journal.

Reinholt also detailed several debates they had agreed to participate in, including one being hosted by the NAACP of Maine and the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. Reinholt said the campaign would give preference to news organizations and television stations that are hosting debates but so far there have been no finalized plans for debates anytime in the near future.

That Reinholt didn’t mention Cutler by name also plays to the narrative the campaign and the Maine Democratic Party has attempted to craft that Michaud is the only alternative to LePage for Maine voters. Democrats have said recent polls show Cutler trailing both LePage and Michaud by 20 points or more.

“For the Michaud campaign, giving Cutler publicity validates him as a candidate, and they want to be seen as the sole viable alternative to LePage,” Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, wrote in an email to the Sun Journal. He said the top two candidates in any campaign seldom want to involve a third candidate unless they can envision it helping them in some way, which Cutler’s campaign does not do.

LePage’s lack of interest in an early debate with Michaud and Cutler is more difficult to understand, Melcher wrote.

“… but perhaps they fear having him overtake Michaud and complicate the race — remember Cutler only lost to (LePage) by two points last time,” Melcher wrote. “Cutler has every interest in having visibility as much as he can get, so it makes sense he’d want as many debates as possible — this mainly follows the normal debate dynamics, except for LePage.”

Christian Potholm, a political science professor at Bowdoin College with 40 years of political polling experience, said he’s never seen a debate change a candidate’s polling position.

He said the campaigns of Michaud and LePage are smart to try to limit the debates because a debate’s ultimate value to a candidate isn’t usually worth the effort that goes into preparing for it.

“. . . it always gets the candidate filled with useless facts, concerns and then regrets over eventual performance,” Potholm wrote in an email message to the Sun Journal.

Potholm said he advise campaigns to stick to only one or two debates that are televised statewide and leave it at that. He said debates are a “vastly overrated tool of democracy – are we looking for a leader or a debater in chief?”

“. . . debates, like which bumper strip to choose, take up more campaign time uselessly than most other items in a campaign,” Potholm wrote.

Cutler is  dismissive of his early polling results noting that in his 2010 campaign he was trailing even more than he is presently.

“I was in the single digits at this point in 2010,” Cutler said. “April polls are lousy predictors of November elections.”

He said the reluctance of Michaud and LePage to debate him in all 16 counties is a disservice to Maine voters.

“They are both afraid of appearing before the voters in ways that permit Maine voters to compare candidates head-to-head,” Cutler said. “I can’t imagine any other reason that a candidate for the biggest job in the state of Maine would run from debates as fast as these guys are running.”

Cutler said there would be debates, if not this spring and summer, in the fall and he was still looking forward to that opportunity to stand toe-to-toe with LePage and Michaud.

“But the whole strategy they have of running away from debates is part of a strategy that is really insulting to the voters of Maine,” Cutler said. “The political parties think that Maine voters believe what they say and they don’t.”

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