LEWISTON — While they don’t agree on much, one thing Republican Gov. Paul LePage and his Democratic challenger Mike Michaud seem to be in agreement on is they don’t intend to participate in many public debates.

Michaud’s campaign spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said Wednesday that Michaud would only participate in debates that LePage had agreed to participate in and wouldn’t face independent candidate Eliot Cutler alone.

So far, only four debates have been scheduled, according to Reinholt, and all of those will happen in October, just weeks before voters go to the polls and well after many have cast absentee ballots.

“We have said all along we are running against Paul LePage; he’s who we are looking to unseat,” Reinholt said of the campaign’s decision to not debate Cutler alone.

But Cutler’s campaign takes issue with the snubs, saying Maine voters are losing out and democracy is suffering. Since the start of his campaign, Cutler has urged his opponents to join him in debates in all of Maine’s 16 counties.

“This is a dark day for both Maine’s democracy and Maine voters,” Cutler said. “If a candidate is afraid to compare his ideas and proposals with his opponents or to submit to tough questions from panelists, what kind of leadership can we expect of him in the Blaine House?”

Cutler blasted both LePage and Michaud, saying they were playing off each other as they avoided public debates on the issues that matter to voters.

“We know that Gov. LePage is a failed leader and manager, and his refusal to debate is nothing new,” Cutler said. “He did the same thing in 2010. Now Congressman Michaud is hiding behind the governor. They are both cowards.”

Cutler said Michaud and LePage would instead depend on television advertising, much of it paid for by outside interest groups, to shape their campaigns.

“They are engaging in exactly the kind of reckless and cynical politics that have led to partisanship and gridlock, have sent Maine into an 11-year-long economic tailspin,” Cutler said.

He said such tactics were “… increasingly turning voters away from political parties and their candidates.”

But Reinholt dismissed the rhetoric, saying Cutler was polling far behind Michaud and LePage. She said voters would get a chance to see all three candidates go head to head in at least four debates and possibly more.

Brent Littlefield, a campaign manager and political consultant for LePage, said they based their debate schedule on the governor’s work schedule and other priorities in running the state.

So far, no public debate has been scheduled for the Lewiston-Auburn area. Littlefield said he was pushing for one within the campaign and expected there would be one scheduled soon.

LePage’s campaign has declined a September debate hosted by the Sun Journal in Lewiston and likewise, Michaud said he would not participate.

Littlefield blasted Michaud, saying his decision to follow LePage’s lead on when, where and whom to debate was clearly a tactic meant to limit Cutler’s public criticism of Michaud.

“They don’t want to be attacked by Eliot Cutler, that’s what they are worried about,” Littlefield said. “And it’s just not Mike Michaud’s persona to lead on anything. He doesn’t even lead on who is going to walk first in a parade. The guy doesn’t lead on anything.”

John Porter, president of the Bangor Area Chamber of Commerce, also said LePage and Michaud had backed out of a debate the chamber was planning.

Porter, a former journalist and editorial page editor with the Portland Press Herald, said he understood why both Michaud and LePage would want to limit their debate appearances and it is a common tactic for the independent candidate in a race to clamor for more debates.

Porter said he had an ongoing conversation with the LePage campaign for about two weeks before they decided they were not going to participate in a debate. “They told us they had received a lot of requests and ultimately they had to make some hard choices and decided not to participate with us,” Porter said.

The LePage campaign gave the Sun Journal a similar explanation.

Porter said the Bangor Area Chamber pulled the plug on its debate after realizing Michaud was not going to participate if LePage wasn’t there.

“If I was running Mike Michaud’s campaign, I wouldn’t go anywhere the governor wasn’t present,” Porter said. “It doesn’t make any sense for him to be boosting Eliot’s stature by having a one-on-one debate.”

Steve Workman, who is volunteering to help organize a debate between the candidates for the Greater York Region Chamber of Commerce in southern Maine, said they would invite the candidates and hold the debate regardless of who agrees to show up.

Workman, an avowed Cutler supporter, said those who don’t show up will be a message to the 35,000 voters in the region that they don’t matter much.

He said his chamber decided to press on with its debate and not play games with the candidates about who would be there and who wouldn’t.

Workman said Maine media shouldn’t be giving the candidates a pass on debates. Nothing focuses on the differences among the candidates like a good debate based on challenging questions, he said.

 

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