AUGUSTA — Maine’s three gubernatorial candidates will reach uncharted territory in the coming days when they at long last appear together on a debate stage.

In general, political debates are tame affairs and do little to sway voters, especially when they’re held this late in a campaign. That’s because after months on the campaign trail, candidates have polished their messages, including at-the-ready responses to opposition research and soundbite attacks.

Often, the takeaway for voters has more to do with how a candidate acts — think the disastrous beads of sweat on Richard Nixon’s upper lip in 1960 or Barack Obama’s sleepy performance against Mitt Romney in 2012 — than what he or she says.

However, the dynamics of the intense three-way race that is underway — including the possibility as recent as two weeks ago that there would be no debates — could make this year an exception.

Polling has been stable for months, with Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud locked in a neck-and-neck lead and independent Eliot Cutler a distant third.

Among the three, Cutler by far is the most eager to debate and has been calling on LePage and Michaud to take the stage with him for months. Because of his dismal position in the polls and the absence of financial and tactical support major-party candidates have at their disposal, Cutler clearly has the most to gain as he attempts to repeat his meteoric rise among voters in the final weeks of the 2010 election, when he finished a close second to LePage. The debates are a rare — and perhaps final — chance for Cutler to be on equal footing with Michaud and LePage.

Michaud gave up his comfortable hold on the 2nd District U.S. House seat to try to win back the Blaine House for Democrats, who have been waiting for more than three years to confront LePage in public about what they see as a series of divisive and off-color words and actions that have embarrassed Maine nationally. Meanwhile, Michaud’s campaign has gone to great lengths to paint Cutler as irrelevant — in part by urging Maine’s media and voters to ignore Cutler as being in the race at all.

LePage, who is known to say the unexpected when he speaks directly to groups or reporters, has gone back and forth on whether he would debate at all. On Sept. 12, he abruptly withdrew from an energy policy forum in Portland when he found out he would need to sit at a table with Michaud and Cutler, even though the event was scheduled to give each candidate 30 minutes with no overlap. That decision was significant because LePage has made Maine’s high energy costs a central issue of his campaign and has criticized Cutler’s and Michaud’s positions in recent weeks.

Here is what each candidate needs to do to achieve maximum benefit out of the debates.

LePage needs to be low key while landing several blows against Michaud.The governor’s support, which has been glued within a few percentage points of 40 percent among registered voters, remained rock solid throughout his first term, despite a series of controversial statements, scathing attacks from his political opponents, a plagiarism scandal involving a $925,000 consultant’s contract and governmental missteps, many of them in the Department of Health and Human Services. LePage will need to keep his cool — expect him to say something like “I’m not a smooth-talking politician like those two other guys” more than once — when Michaud and Cutler try to ignite him by citing his past outbursts and his refusal to participate in the legislative process or in budget writing.

LePage also will need to answer for three devastating mill closures this year that work against his core argument that he knows how to create and retain jobs.

A perfect performance for LePage would have him keeping his tone calm, except perhaps for a forceful response when Michaud says LePage thinks Social Security is “welfare,” which LePage has been denying since hours after his office issued a news release quoting him to that effect. It’s not a small point in an election in which senior citizens could decide the outcome.

LePage would be best served by relentlessly turning the conversation to his accomplishments, such as restructuring the state employee pension system to avoid a future $4 billion unfunded liability, big income tax cuts he championed and won in 2011 or the several welfare reform initiatives he has called for since last fall. While a minority of those have been enacted, those that weren’t give LePage an opportunity to criticize his opponents on an issue that has resonated with voters.

Michaud needs to show passion while demonstrating a strong grasp of the issues. Michaud, who has never lost an election, is widely known for being a nice guy to the point that even Maine GOP Chairman Rick Bennett, who years ago served as Maine Senate co-president with Michaud, repeated the Democrat’s “I like Mike” campaign slogan during a news conference.

Michaud, who has spent the gubernatorial campaign selling himself as a compromise artist, will need to land several bruises on LePage and further marginalize Cutler if he hopes to pull significantly ahead as a result of the debates. In a three-way election, in which strategic voting could determine the outcome, he must convince voters turned off by LePage that — unlike 2010 Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell — he has a better chance to beat LePage than Cutler does.

Not known for his public speaking prowess, Michaud needs to appear confident on the issues and be ready to present and defend his policy initiatives, particularly in the areas of energy, education, budgeting, veterans’ care, and women’s health and reproductive rights. Michaud also needs to fend off a whisper campaign regarding his intelligence that intensified last month, when Republicans released a recording of Bangor Democratic Sen. Geoff Gratwick telling a constituent Michaud is “not a brain guy.”

Michaud, who early in the campaign relied more on his record of seeking collaboration in the Legislature and Congress to win over voters, has become more forceful in recent weeks on the campaign trail. However, he will need to strike a balance between his nice-guy demeanor and putting up a strong defense against opponents’ arguments that he rarely has shown leadership and altered core policy positions during three decades in public office.

Cutler needs to make a case that he can end gridlock in Augusta while not coming across as too pompous. Cutler has been pumping out policy proposals since late last year and has exhaustively been repeating the notion that, as an independent, he is molded in the image of former Gov. Angus King, who remains one of the most popular politicians in Maine.

However, some have said Cutler is pushing his proposals too aggressively this year, when compared to 2010, and is coming across as a condescending elitist. One example is his tax reform proposal — versions of which have been tried and failed multiple times in Maine. Cutler insists his plan will find success if he is elected, merely because he, as governor, would not need to play party politics unlike what LePage and former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci have done. Expect him to utter a chuckle after watching LePage and Michaud go at it and say something like “Look at those guys. This is why Augusta is so broken.”

Cutler also will need to fend off the notion that has been building in recent weeks — that his campaign is dead and that, as evidenced by decreased television ad buys, he knows it. Finding momentum will be crucial in the early debates, the first of which is Wednesday morning in Portland. If his poll numbers don’t start improving quickly, efforts by both parties to have voters cast ballots early — and major third-party advertising buys for Michaud and LePage planned for the campaign’s last weeks — will be too great to overcome.

The five gubernatorial debates, at which all three candidates have agreed to appear, are on Wednesday with the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce; Thursday with the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce; Oct. 15 with the Maine Chamber of Commerce (televised); Oct. 20 with CBS 13 and the Bangor Daily News (televised); and Oct 21. with WMTW-TV and WABI-TV (televised).

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