BANGOR, Maine — The front-runners in the race for the Blaine House took aim at one another Monday evening, criticizing each other’s records and campaign tactics during a live televised debate at Bangor High School’s Peakes Auditorium.
With just three weeks left in what polls suggest is a tightening race, the candidates fielded questions on some of the pressing policy matters facing the governor, including deteriorating roads, high dropout rates and government regulation.
But there also were fireworks during the debate, co-sponsored by the Bangor Daily News and WVII ABC 7-WFVX Fox 22.
Republican Paul LePage accused Democrat Libby Mitchell of hypocrisy for mocking former President George W. Bush. Independent Eliot Cutler criticized LePage’s record as mayor of Waterville and Mitchell for the level of state borrowing during her time as Senate president.
The first feisty exchange came after a seemingly innocuous question on how each candidate would help Maine’s tourism economy grow.
“One thing I wouldn’t do is tell the president where to go,” said independent Shawn Moody in reference to videotape of LePage recently suggesting that if elected he would tell President Barack Obama to “go to hell.”
“He brought his family up here to enjoy the state of Maine, and he gave the Maine economy a huge shot by saying nationally what a beautiful state we do have,” Moody said.
LePage responded by saying his message to the president about overregulation of the fishing industry was dead-on even if his language was inappropriate.
“The choice of words was wrong, and I apologize to Mainers and to the president,” LePage said. “But the president should not be docking our boats and taking our fishermen off the water.”
Mitchell chimed in by saying that a governor must be respectful of the president in order to build relationships. But LePage promptly fired back.
“I just saw a picture of Sen. Mitchell holding a picture of President Bush calling him a terrorist,” LePage said.
A bewildered-looking Mitchell replied that she had no idea what he was talking about and wanted to see the picture.
After the debate, the LePage campaign produced a photo of a laughing Mitchell holding what appears to be a framed citation or proclamation signed by Bush. Attached to the frame is a smaller sticker or card with the former president’s picture bracketed by the words, “international terrorist.”
Mitchell expressed regret at the picture in a statement released by her campaign late Monday night.
“After seeing this picture for the first time tonight, I regret the possible disrespect it may show to the office of the president of the United States,” Mitchell said. “I am very sorry for having posed with this item.”
The latest skirmish comes on the heels of two polls showing that the once-sizable gap between LePage and Mitchell has all but evaporated.
The most recent survey, released over the weekend, showed LePage and Mitchell separated by less than a percentage point. The Pine Tree Politics-Maine Center for Public Opinion survey of 679 voters had LePage at 29.6 percent and Mitchell at 28.7 percent. Cutler drew the support of 11.1 percent, followed by Moody at 4.9 percent and independent Kevin Scott at 1.6 percent.
Throughout Monday’s debate, Cutler was on the offensive against the two front-runners.
Cutler questioned LePage’s successes as Waterville mayor, saying that fees and spending had increased. He also criticized the level of state borrowing during Mitchell’s tenure as Senate president.
“We’re not going to do better by simply cutting tax breaks, by borrowing, by spending and by waiting … for someone else to bail us out,” Cutler said.
LePage also criticized Mitchell for running ads targeting him.
Mitchell countered in response to a question by saying that pointing out important policy differences between herself and her opponents was fair game.
“Elections are about choices, and people have to understand the differences,” Mitchell said.
The two other independent candidates in the race — Moody and Scott — used the back-and-forth between the three front-runners as evidence that the next governor should be someone from the business realm, not the political one.
“Let’s just put an end to it and let’s get to the problem-solving stage,” Scott said.
While the heated exchanges generated the most buzz from the several hundred people in the audience, the candidates did lay out some significant policy differences among each other, such as when they were asked whether they would support abolishing the Land Use Regulation Commission.
Scott said he seriously would consider ending LURC while LePage said he supports abolishing the agency that oversees planning and land use in the state’s Unorganized Territory.
“One size does not fit all and I believe the county commissioners do a better job of understanding what is needed in their county than bureaucrats in Augusta,” LePage said.
Cutler said he would support separating the planning and licensing functions now handled by LURC. Cutler cited the recent lengthy review of Plum Creek’s Moosehead Lake development plan as an example of why the commission shouldn’t handle both.
“The fact that it took five years and $25 million now stands as a red light blinking at the border of our state saying, ‘Go somewhere else.’”
Mitchell defended LURC and the agency’s several-year review of the project, which she said had statewide importance.
Moody said LURC helps provide businesses with uniform rules across its jurisdiction.
“We have to have standardization across the state,” Moody said. “We can’t slice and dice with 16 counties.”