During World War II, the government constantly cautioned American military personnel concerning the dangers of inadvertently tipping off spies and saboteurs about military operations. “Loose lips sink ships,” the War Department advised GIs about to ship out, so don’t get all liquored up in some sleazy off-post bar and irresponsibly start blabbing about troop movements on the high seas.
When Mainers picked up their morning newspaper Thursday and read about a new poll showing that Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage had lost a commanding 18-point lead over his nearest challenger, Democrat Libby Mitchell, they could be forgiven for wondering if LePage’s reputation for blunt speech may have come back to dramatically bite him.
If loose lips could sink ships back in the day, what might undisciplined lips do to a front-running political campaign in a technologically advanced era in which verbal blunders can almost immediately go globally viral? The answer should become apparent in the month remaining before the mid-term elections. In the meantime, unless the polls are woefully out of whack, the gubernatorial election appears to have become a horse race, whatever the reasons.
On Sept. 23, a Rasmussen poll showed LePage to be the choice of 45 percent of 500 likely voters with Mitchell at 27 percent and independent Eliot Cutler at 14 percent. A poll of 405 registered voters conducted by Portland-based Critical Insights on Monday and released Wednesday showed Mitchell and LePage in a statistical dead heat with Mitchell at 30 percent and the former front-running LePage at 29 percent. Although Mitchell polled slightly higher than she did in the Rasmussen survey, LePage dropped an amazing 16 points in one week. Cutler had slipped to 9 percent and independent Shawn Moody was the choice of 5 percent of likely voters.
Confidently feisty in his campaign appearances since blowing away the competition in a seven-way Republican primary in June, LePage has been Ricochet Rabbit, bouncing from one controversy to another while maintaining a rocky relationship with news reporters who sometimes ask him questions he’d rather they didn’t. On occasion, he seems to fall victim to that age-old curse of the thin-skinned politician: failure to engage brain before putting mouth into gear.
On Tuesday, LePage told Maine Public Broadcasting Network anchor Jennifer Rooks — before taping of the program began, but with cameras and microphones turned on —he was “about ready to punch A.J. Higgins.” Higgins, MPBN’s State House correspondent, had persisted in asking LePage questions about his wife’s residency status and the couple’s taxes.
The comment was meant as a joke, LePage — dubbed “LeRage” by one online commenter — subsequently explained. Higgins accepted the explanation, and the two reportedly spoke of getting together to patch things up over a beer.
The incident that set the Internet’s chattering classes atwitter, however, and had LePage’s opponents suggesting he is not ready for prime-time governing concerned a video posted online. It showed LePage addressing a gathering of Maine commercial fishermen, telling them that when he becomes governor, “You’re going to be seeing a lot of me on the front page saying ‘Governor LePage tells Obama to go to hell.’”
The Waterville Republican later expressed regret about his choice of words regarding the president. He said he was angry and remains so, because Maine fishermen have been put out of work due to federal overregulation. If he had the luxury of a do-over, he probably would choose his words more carefully, LePage suggested.
His politically incorrect speech — refreshing for some Mainers, not so much for others — LePage told a reporter, can be attributed to his not having learned how to “speak out of both sides of my mouth,” as most career politicians do. “But I have to learn not to use street words,” he acknowledged, joking that his daughter, who works on his campaign, recently gave him a roll of duct tape for his mouth.
One roll of what true Mainers know as all-purpose “official State of Maine tape” should suffice in the four weeks remaining until the election. But should he make it to the Blaine House, LePage probably ought to keep a healthy supply of the material on hand. Four years is not a terribly long time to teach an old dawg new tricks, and the potential for verbal bungling along the way looms large.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.