WATERVILLE, Maine — Republican gubernatorial nominee Paul LePage gathered with some 150 supporters and the other six candidates in the GOP primary Wednesday in an effort to send the message that the Republican Party is united.
LePage, who surprised many by garnering 38 percent of the vote in last Tuesday’s seven-way primary, said his success is an indication that Maine people are ready for a change in how Maine government operates. He pledged to make creating jobs the centerpiece of his campaign and, if he wins, the governorship.
“The business of Maine is going to be business, come November,” said LePage, flanked by the six Republican gubernatorial candidates who lost in the primary and numerous other state and local party members.
LePage, who is general manager of Marden’s stores and mayor of Waterville, was surrounded by people seeking to chat with him as soon as he arrived outside Waterville City Hall. News cameras clicked and whirred around him, offering a glimpse of the scrutiny LePage will face in the months between now and the Nov. 2 elec-tion. LePage kept his appearance at the lectern brief, though, leaving it to the former gubernatorial candidates and Republican Party activists to send his message for him. That message was that the party needs unity to win the governorship.
Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, who came in third last Tuesday in his second primary bid for the Blaine House, said that in addition to banding together, Republicans need to spread a positive message this summer that includes constructive ideas.
“It is imperative that we as a party begin to set aside some of the social issues that divide us and focus on businesses and the problems facing state government,” said Mills. “It is a mess.”
Businessman Les Otten, who came in second behind LePage after far outspending him during the primary campaign, agreed.
“When we get our message out, we will get the support to elect the next governor,” said Otten, who said he and some of the other former candidates already have been approached by independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler for their support.
“I pledge not to support Eliot Cutler,” Otten said to rousing applause from the audience, many of whom waved LePage signs.
Steve Abbott, a former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins who was heavily involved in some of her re-election campaigns, garnered the fourth-highest vote total in the Republican primary. As the event disbanded, he told the Bangor Daily News that a LePage victory depends on not only Republicans voting together, but Democrats as well.
“I hope both Paul LePage and Libby Mitchell maintain their support,” said Abbott. “If one of those two candidates loses their base, that’s how Eliot Cutler wins.”
Bill Beardsley, the former Husson University president who with LePage positioned himself as one of the more conservative Republicans in the primary, said the most important thing about LePage’s success is the fact that he carried 14 of Maine’s 16 counties.
“I turned out to have regional appeal,” said Beardsley after Wednesday’s event. “It bodes well that Paul LePage had strength all the way across the state.”
Mary Erin Casale, executive director for the Maine Democratic Party, attended Tuesday’s event at Waterville City Hall to circulate a press release bearing the headline “LePage Too Extreme.” The press release quoted former Maine Republican Party Vice Chairman Scott Kauffman.
“I cannot and will not be giving my endorsement to Mr. LePage,” said Kauffman in the release. “The Tea Party, and to a larger extent the Maine Republican Party, has become too extreme.”
Asked whether the same could be said about Democratic nominee Mitchell, Casale said Mitchell’s record shows she is not as liberal as some make her out to be.
“I’d like to see examples of how Libby is too leftist,” said Casale. “I don’t see it.”
Reporters peppered LePage about how his stance on several social issues might be used against him. LePage opposes gay marriage, is anti-abortion and supports the teaching of creationism in schools. But LePage said jobs, not social issues, should be the focus of the gubernatorial campaign.
“We have to concentrate on jobs, fiscal responsibility, accountability and having common-sense regulations for the state of Maine,” LePage said. “If you want to talk about something else, you’re going to be having politics as usual. If you want politics as usual, I’m not your guy. If you want the state to prosper, I’m your guy.”
Leaving no doubt that the general election campaign is already in full swing, the LePage camp already has caused a minor dust-up with independent Cutler.
Earlier this week, LePage posted a message on his Facebook page decrying “depraved attacks” against his campaign and insinuating that someone had stolen his trash, presumably in an effort to dig up some political dirt. The accusations have picked up steam in the blogosphere along with suggestions that Cutler may have been involved.
Those rumors prompted Cutler’s campaign manager, Ted O’Meara, to issue two statements this week denying any involvement in trash picking or other questionable activity. O’Meara suggested that the rumors were a deliberate, calculated smear campaign against Cutler, whom many view as a credible threat against both LePage and Mitchell.
Cutler himself wrote a letter to LePage’s campaign Tuesday calling the rumors of trash picking and hiring private investigators “laughable” and suggesting that it was LePage operatives who had started the rumor mill.
Asked Wednesday about the rumors of somebody rummaging through his garbage, LePage replied: “I don’t know. They’re welcome to it.”