PORTLAND — The seven Republican candidates in the gubernatorial primary sought to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack Friday evening in front of a larger audience than they have had at any point in the campaign — which for some of them already has gone on for two years.
The two-day GOP State Convention, scheduled for Friday and today, brought about 1,800 registered Republicans to the floor of the Portland Expo, and when the television cameras went live Friday night for a one-hour debate, untold numbers tuned in from home.
In a quick-hit format that has become familiar to those following the campaigns, the candidates sought to accomplish the dual goals of voicing their opinions on the issues while displaying for voters the personal qualities that they say would make them the best nominee for the state’s top elected post. In most cases the candidates diverged little from the stump speeches and scripted responses they have used throughout the campaign. Still, several attendees said Friday night was their first opportunity to see all the candidates at once.
“I saw a lot of differences tonight,” said Barbara Susman of Bangor. “We’re very lucky as a party to have so many strong candidates.”
The debate, unlike some of the past forums, focused on real situations facing the state — from a plan by Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor to expand in Florida to a proposal for the government to purchase miles of railroad in northern Maine. Both questions brought out stark differences between the candidates.
One component in a bond package that voters will decide on June 8, would borrow $7 million in an attempt to keep 233 miles of rail lines in Aroostook County in operation — thereby supporting more than 20 businesses that rely on it.
Two of the candidates, Steve Abbott and Peter Mills, voiced clear support for that provision of the bond package. Paul LePage, Bruce Poliquin, Bill Beardsley Les Otten and Matt Jacobson did not approve of taxpayer funding to buy that portion of track.
“That railroad is the only line in Aroostook County,” said Abbott. “If we lose that steel we’re losing northern Maine. We need to invest in our infrastructure.”
Mills agreed by trying to put the price tag in perspective with what would be lost if the railroad were to stop operating. “The amount of money the state is risking is less than [the railroad] could salvage those tracks for,” he said.
The other candidates disagreed, in some cases forcefully.
“We’re broke,” said Poliquin. “When you’re broke you get out of the hole not by borrowing more money.”
Otten said the state’s truckers could handle the load if the railroad closes. “I don’t believe the government needs to run a failed railroad,” he said.
On the Jackson Lab issue, the candidate’s decisions were less clear-cut, though all thought Maine should do whatever it can to encourage the company to expand in Maine, up to a point. The state of Florida is considering investing more than $200 million in the expansion, which several candidates have conceded is too much for Maine’s resources to bear.
Beardsley, as he has all along the campaign trail, said Maine should have approached the company years ago about what its specific needs were. “We need to focus closely on what it is these companies want,” he said. LePage agreed.
“The administration should be active,” he said. “Right now it’s never proactive. Wealth goes where it’s welcome and stays where it’s appreciated.”
Mills said the Baldacci administration “should have done a great deal more” for Jackson Lab, but not in the form of millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies.
“The opportunity in Florida was something like $250 million,” he said. “For 200 jobs, I don’t think so.”
Jacobson suggested that the Jackson Lab debate is irrelevant to the larger issue of attracting economic development in Maine.
“The issue is not whether we should have gone after Jackson Labs,” he said. “Our problem is not that we ought to chase whatever comes down the road. Running after whatever happens to be expanding this month is the same old policy.”
Linda Hardy, a delegate from Hancock who hasn’t decided whom she supports, said she was relying on Friday’s debate and Saturday’s scheduled speeches by all of the gubernatorial candidates to sway her.
“This is the best field of candidates I’ve seen in years,” she said.