All three candidates score victories, endure defeats in first televised debate

Candidates for governor (from left) independent Eliot Cutler, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage greet each other on stage before a televised debate in Augusta on Wednesday night.   Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Candidates for governor (from left) independent Eliot Cutler, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage greet each other on stage before a televised debate in Augusta on Wednesday night. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

For the minority of Mainers who pay close attention to state politics, Wednesday’s first televised debate in the gubernatorial race was full of familiar talking points as well as returns to campaign strategies that have been developing for months.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage and independent candidate Eliot Cutler, both of whom will benefit if Mike Michaud’s supporters start abandoning him, launched a series of withering attacks that kept the Democrat, who has been the slight front-runner for most of the campaign, mostly on defense. For Michaud, Wednesday’s forum, sponsored by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, became an attempt at survival in a game where he was outnumbered and, when it came to oration, outgunned.

Here are a few takeaways:

1. LePage was clearly on his game. Debates and public appearances have for the most part been his strength, earning him a reputation as one of the most effective retail politicians in recent Maine history.

When moderator Pat Callahan of WCSH asked about what is seen by most as a combative, veto-strewn first term of working with the Legislature, LePage said 80 percent of the bills that came to his desk went into law and that “when you try to get me to do bad public policy, it goes in the trash.”

It should be noted that much of the legislation passed by the Democrat-controlled 126th Legislature became law without LePage’s signature — and that lawmakers from both parties passed state budgets over his fierce objections.

LePage deflected attacks from Cutler over his failed involvement in bringing Cate Street Capitol in to run the Great Northern Paper Co. in East Millinocket by admitting that the deal went sour and saying that his administration is “investigating the whole thing in Millinocket, going back several years.”

When Michaud asked about his opposition to expanding Medicaid. LePage said the better solution to providing health coverage to the poor is bringing economic prosperity to Maine — by lowering energy costs and barring labor unions from requiring workers to pay fees for collective bargaining and other services — so people can afford to buy private policies on federal health care exchanges.

That was a departure from Republicans’ well-worn arguments that expansion is simply too expensive and that the ACA should be repealed. LePage also said during a lightning round question that he would support background checks for private gun sales if that law were enacted by referendum.

2. Cutler was on the attack. He had no choice if he is to have any chance at turning his campaign, which is lagging some 20 percentage points behind Michaud and LePage in the polls, toward victory in the less than three weeks before Election Day.

He had some of the most memorable lines of the night, such as when he jabbed Michaud’s accomplishments by saying “Mike, I’m glad I don’t have your record,” to which LePage clapped and bellowed “me too.”

Cutler also painted Michaud as a flip-flopper who early in his career voted numerous times against abortion and equality rights for gay and lesbian people, which is a sore spot for Cutler because of a string of endorsements that have gone to Michaud from Equality Maine, Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign.

Cutler, who has spent most of his campaign talking about his policy proposals and ideas, did little of that Wednesday night as he sought to create doubt around his opponents.

After so long accentuating the positive, that shift could seem to some voters as too negative and perhaps arrogant or disrespectful, such as when he said to Michaud, “Listen to this, Mike. You’ll learn something.”

3. Michaud was bruised but maintained his poise. He started the debate with a sort of apology — “I’m not the most entertaining orator. I’m more of a listener and a problem-solver” — and portrayed himself as a collaborator who unlike LePage, would work with both Democrats and Republicans.

He deflected Cutler’s attack about his changing stance on abortion and equal rights with a non-apologetic explanation of how his opinions changed with the times (“Yes, I have evolved on that issue. But what is wrong with evolving?”) and several times hit LePage for not working more effectively with the Legislature.

To a question about how to keep a major Ebola outbreak from coming to the United States, Michaud said expanding access to medical coverage is a crucial step because “the virus doesn’t pick and choose who is infected and our health care shouldn’t pick and choose who we care for.”

A weak moment for Michaud was when LePage asked whether the Maine Democratic Party had courted Cutler to run as a Democrat before Michaud announced his candidacy last year. Michaud said “I am the Democratic nominee,” but LePage had already labeled him as a second choice.

Michaud, as he himself pointed out, tripped over words and stuttered at times, but overall maintained composure in the face of the attacks from his opponents. When asked how Maine can best create jobs, his answer was “fire Gov. LePage.”

Many in the audience agreed that it was a rough night for Michaud, that Cutler landed major blows on both of the other candidates and that LePage’s defense of his first term was impassioned in a way that would resonate with his supporters.

The major question is whether television viewers saw the same dynamics as those who witnessed the debate in person. After all, body language and facial expressions caught in camera close-ups often create more vivid impressions than what a person is actually saying. That sort of thing has swayed elections before.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.