The four candidates hoping to replace Republican Gov. Paul LePage squared off on several key issues including abortion, climate change, immigration, sexual harassment and health care during a debate at the University of New England’s Portland campus Wednesday.

Sitting side by side, Republican Shawn Moody and Democrat Janet Mills sparred over climate change.

Democratic candidate Janet Mills listens to Republican candidate Shawn Moody as he offers a rebuttal to one of her statements during a debate among the candidates for Maine governor Thursday. (Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald)

Mills implied that Moody was a “climate change denier,” an assertion that Moody rejected. Independents Alan Caron and Terry Hayes said they had no doubt the climate was changing and it was affecting Maine and its economy and people.

A question about energy spurred the lively exchange between Mills and Moody.

Mills pledged to pursue a policy “that weans us off of fossil fuels as soon as possible” and then went after Moody about his position on climate change. In particular, Mills seized on a comment Moody made at a Rockland fishermen’s forum where Moody said it was important that the government not overreact to climate change and help industries navigate the challenge.

“I believe in renewable energy and, by the way, I believe in climate change,” Mills said. “I don’t believe the Blaine House should become home to a climate change denier.”

In response, Moody pointed to his company’s work with Maine Audubon at the organization’s Falmouth property on a major renewable energy project and said his company has “an incredible” reputation on the environment and renewable energy.

“For anyone to say in this day and age that anyone is in denial of climate change, that is such a ridiculous statement. It doesn’t even merit a response,” Moody said to cheers from his supporters and jeers from the Mills crowd.

In a June debate with Republican candidates before he won his party’s primary, Moody said he did not believe human beings were causing climate change.

After the moderator pushed Mills to identify Moody as the person she was suggesting was a climate-change denier, Moody charged Mills with dodging the question. “Thanks for getting that out of Janet,” Moody said. “She kind of walked around the barn on that one.”

Moody also took heat for not fully answering questions. At one point he was heckled from the audience for not precisely answering a question on what state resources he would deploy to help lower student debt in Maine.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Janet Mills answers a question during Wednesday night’s debate. To her left are independents Alan Caron and Terry Hayes, and to her right is Republican Shawn Moody. (Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald)

Hayes said she would focus on helping students not get into debt in the first place by being ready to succeed in college when they got there. Moody said he would put more emphasis on allowing young people to decide to work in “blue-collar” jobs and with their hands instead of being pushed toward expensive college degrees that they may not finish or that may not provide a pathway to well-paid employment. He also said private companies should be responsible for student loan forgiveness programs, noting that many already offer hiring bonuses of up to $10,000.

Mills said she would develop programs to provide income tax relief to workers who have degrees and were returning to work in Maine, and give tax incentives to companies that help workers with their student debt.

The candidates took strong stances on abortion rights, with Mills, Caron and Hayes saying they would protect a woman’s right to an abortion, while Moody said he does not believe taxpayer funds should be spent on abortion.

The candidates were asked their positions on two abortion-related issues. The first was whether they would support attempts to impose tougher regulatory standards on abortion clinics, a move in conservative states that critics contend is an overt attempt to force clinics out of business. The second bill, which has been discussed in Maine, would allow physician assistants to perform early-term abortions without a doctor present with the use of pharmaceuticals.

Hayes acknowledged that she would have to research the issues more before taking a position, but added: “I would have to be persuaded in a significant way that the standards we have now are inadequate, and I’m not clear that they are.”

Caron gave perhaps the most passionate response, saying he didn’t understand why conservatives push for government to “get off our backs,” but are “right in the middle” when it comes to abortion. Caron said he would not support any measures that interfered with a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.

Moody said he believes physicians should be involved in abortion procedures, but he would have to do more research on the regulatory standards issue.

Mills said the tighter regulatory standards imposed in other states “are clearly intended solely to limit the right of access to safe and legal abortions, and I would oppose them.”

But on the issue of physician assistants performing abortions, Mills said she helped to draft the measure to increase access to health care — not just abortions — in rural Maine. But those decisions should be made by licensing boards, Mills said.

About 700 people attended the event, co-sponsored by the Portland Press Herald and UNE, in one of the most high-energy appearances of the candidates, who have appeared together more frequently in recent weeks.

The candidates were also asked if they would hire somebody to their staff who had a credible allegation of sexual harassment or assault being levied against them.

Mills said she would issue an executive order on her first day as governor saying she would never interfere with investigations or findings of the Maine Human Rights Commission, unlike LePage who has injected himself into several cases involving businesses in Maine involving discrimination charges.

Moody pointed to his company’s policy and practices and noted that he seeks to empower his female co-workers at all levels of his business, and as governor would fully vet any possible employees including making sure they were not felons. Both Caron and Hayes said they would disqualify an applicant if they learned of such allegations.

Caron and Hayes spoke to the #MeToo movement with Hayes saying it was imperative that “we raise our sons to have respect for women.”

In a final question, the candidates were asked which of their opponents they would bring into their new administration were they to win.

Hayes said if she were to win she believed Mills would run again to be the state’s attorney general, the position Mills currently holds. Hayes did say she would consider putting both Caron and Moody into her administration.

Mills at first said she wasn’t prepared to say who she would hire to her administration were she to win but later said she could see all three of her opponents serving on a transition team.

Moody did not commit to putting any of his opponents in his cabinet were he to win. But he credited all of his opponents with “running for the right reason.”

Caron said that if he were successful he would ask all three of his opponents to join his team and quipped that the first thing they would do would be to take a Florida vacation together in the RV he’s been using as a mobile campaign office.

“There are no demons on this panel as much as some people would like to persuade you there are; there are not,” Caron said.