Even Paul LePage admits his methods have been distorting his message.
After weeks of public appearances marred by verbal gaffes and heated clashes with reporters, LePage said during an appearance Tuesday in Bangor that it’s time to soften up.
“There have been a lot of distractions in the past few weeks,” said LePage to the Bangor Noontime Rotary. “I’m responsible for most of it.”
From telling a reporter to “stop the bullshit” to saying to a group of lobstermen at a fundraiser that he’d tell President Barack Obama to “go to hell,” LePage and his missteps have wound up on front pages, newscasts and websites here and across the country. Dan Demeritt, who signed on as LePage’s press secretary last week, said LePage knows his behavior at times has detracted from the campaign.
“Paul knows that if he wants to talk about creating jobs and taking on the establishment, he needs to do it in a way that his point of view, and not the words he chooses, are the story,” said Demeritt.
Whether this change in tone is a tactical shift to dampen the noise around LePage’s policy proposals or defensive posturing in the face of eroding support indicated in recent polls depends on who’s talking, but one thing’s certain: LePage is trying to brush up his image.
Race-watchers from academia said Wednesday that a candidate’s personality and behavior under stress are key factors for voters trying to envision him or her as the state’s highest elected officer. Whether that bodes well for LePage remains to be seen, especially with approximately 25 percent of voters still undecided, according to a poll last week.
Ronald Schmidt, head of the University of Southern Maine’s political science department, said LePage’s change may be an indication that his campaign is simply moving to a new phase.
“My guess is that his base of voters is pretty locked in with him,” said Schmidt. “Now he’ll try to reach out to undecided voters and reassure them that he’s not a loose cannon. Governors need to be able to negotiate with a lot of players in the system. They need to pull together coalitions in the Legislature and also deal with other governments. We’ll have to see on Election Day whether this attempt at reining in his image is going to take.”
Whatever the reason, LePage’s support has slipped, according to recent polls. Last week, a Critical Insights poll put LePage statistically even with Democrat Libby Mitchell after weeks of LePage enjoying double-digit leads.
Christian Potholm, a professor of government at Bowdoin College, said he expected LePage’s numbers to fall — but not necessarily because of his less-than-polished campaign appearances.
“Nobody laid a glove on him in the primary. He came out of it unscathed and it was a great story,” said Potholm. “I think he was artificially high in those early polls.”
Another difference between the primary and the general election is that LePage is more often being videotaped — and anger does not transmit well in that medium. One of the most notorious recent cases was Howard Dean, the Vermont governor whose infamous “Dean scream” in 2004 hobbled his bid to run for president virtually overnight.
“Television rewards coolness and punishes wildness and roughness and hot personalities,” said Potholm. “If [LePage] is going to remain competitive for the next month, he has to tone down his whole approach.”
Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said LePage knows he’s under heavy scrutiny.
“The only thing that’s slowing him down a little bit is when he made statements that people don’t see as being gubernatorial,” said Webster. “The only difference between now and two weeks ago is that now he’s being a little more reserved.”
Mary-Erin Casale, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party, said any change in tactics now can’t reverse the image LePage has already carved for himself.
“He can’t run away from his comments and behavior,” she said. “This is an attempt to stop his poll numbers from dropping. Mainers are smart enough to realize this is a strategy tactic.”
Mitchell spokesman David Loughran agreed. “Part of the campaign is understanding the issues,” he said. “Part of the campaign is also watching and learning about the differences in temperament.”
Ted O’Meara, campaign manager for independent Eliot Cutler, who is polling third in the five-person race, agreed that “the real Paul LePage” has already been revealed.
“There’s a difference between being a tough leader, like Eliot would be, who will discuss different points of view with people, versus being a bully,” said O’Meara. “Paul must be driving his handlers crazy every time he speaks in public.”
One such example was Wednesday morning — about 22 hours after LePage said he’d soften his tone — when the gubernatorial candidates gathered for a forum with hundreds of members of the Portland Regional Chamber. After Cutler made reference to Waterville’s high school dropout rate being twice the state average in 2008-09 — which Cutler backed up with data from the Maine Department of Education — LePage told Cutler he was “full of bull.”
Casale quipped that LePage is already making progress.
“He didn’t use the other word at the end so maybe that’s his softening,” she said.