PORTLAND Maine (Reuters) - Maine Governor Paul LePage, a Tea Party-backed Republican who is locked in a tight re-election battle, scrapped with his Democratic challenger on Wednesday in a debate that focused on economic issues, while an independent candidate tried to undercut his major party rivals.
Democrat Mike Michaud, a five-term U.S. congressman, said LePage has a steady record of partisan squabbles with statehouse rivals that is hurting the rural state’s ability to tackle problems, including rising energy costs and the recent closure of three paper mills that were big employers.
“I’m the only candidate with a proven track record of working across the aisle,” said Michaud, who would become the first openly gay man to be elected governor of a U.S. state.
LePage, who won by a narrow margin in 2010, dismissed Michaud as ineffective and touted his administration’s record of fiscal responsibility - including repayment of a hundreds of millions owed to the state’s hospitals — as a top accomplishment.
“All they do is talk, talk, talk,” LePage said of Michaud and his fellow Democrats.
The fact that the two, as well as independent Eliot Cutler, were even on the same stage for a debate was something of an accomplishment as LePage had for weeks threatened not to participate in debates, charging that Michaud had misrepresented one of his statements on Social Security.
Polls show LePage and Michaud essentially in a dead heat, with a Portland Press Herald poll released late last month showing Michaud with the support of 41 percent of voters to LePage’s 39 percent, a lead within the poll’s 4.4 percent margin of error.
Cutler, a lawyer and businessman, held the support of 14 percent of the 482 likely voters polled Sept. 18-25, making his candidacy a factor as well.
Cutler doled out the harshest jabs — saying a vote for either LePage or Michaud would prevent progress.
“It can be the second chapter of the same embarrassing, frustrating gridlock story that we’ve lived for four years,” said Cutler. “Or, we can close the book on policies that don’t work and free ourselves from partisanship.”
In 2010, the left-leaning Cutler trounced the Democratic candidate for governor, Libby Mitchell, after a late-season surge, but finished two percentage points behind LePage, who won with 39 percent of the vote.
Democrats, fearful of a repeat in 2014, have attempted to marginalize Cutler’s candidacy, while Republicans have sought to bolster it, hoping to rob Michaud of votes.
“This is really a referendum on LePage’s record. You either love him, or you hate him,” said Jennifer Duffy, of the Cook Political Report, which tracks governor’s races nationwide. “But Cutler still remains a wild card.”
Maine elected an independent, Angus King, as governor in 1994 and re-elected him in 1998. King won election to the U.S. Senate in 2012 as an independent, but he caucuses with Senate Democrats for the purpose of committee assignments.
Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky