PORTLAND, Maine — Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler blasted his Democratic and Republican rivals on Monday for not agreeing to more debates, saying the party candidates are afraid the forums could blunt their efforts to cement early advantages through absentee voting.
Cutler’s news conference at Portland City Hall came on the first day of absentee voting. Flanked by symbolically empty podiums bearing the names of Democratic candidate Mike Michaud and incumbent Republican Paul LePage, Cutler said that 66 percent of Maine voters remain undecided about the upcoming election, and he argued that “those voters want as many chances as possible to evaluate the candidates.”
Officials with the LePage and Michaud camps each countered that the party candidates have already agreed to numerous debates, and that voters will have plenty of opportunities to see how the three major candidates size up to one another.
“People have a lot of questions, and they want to hear candidates answer them,” Cutler said. “It’s not that [the debates] are important to me, or important to reporters. They’re important to the voters.
“Party loyalists worry that more forums or debates could dissuade voters from early voting,” he continued, adding, “The Democrats and Republicans want the debates to come after people have already voted.”
Cutler’s campaign distributed a list of seven debates — including two on Aug. 27 and Sept. 24 — that only the independent has agreed to. In addition to urging LePage and Michaud to “come out of hiding” and agree to more debates, Cutler on Monday urged the hosting organizations to hold the forums even if only one candidate agrees to appear.
Among those organizations hoping to hold debates, he said, are the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Women’s Policy Center, and the Environmental & Energy Technology Council of Maine.
“Let’s see if one of these organizations has the good judgment and the courage to have an empty chair or empty podium debate,” Cutler said. “I think if one of these organizations holds an empty chair debate, we’ll have a lot of forums and debates with all three candidates. And if the other two continue to refuse, I think the voters will take it out on them in the fall.
“This isn’t ‘American Idol,’” he added. “This is a 90-day interview for the CEO job for the largest and most complicated organization in the state of Maine. … Voters want opportunities to evaluate candidates’ leadership skills and management qualities.”
Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, attended the Cutler news conference in Portland on Monday. He told reporters afterward that Michaud and LePage have agreed to take part in six debates during the fall campaign season, and that the six-term congressman Michaud would “debate any time, any place where all three candidates [are present].”
Grant pointed out that the six agreed-to gubernatorial debates are twice as many as American voters typically get during presidential campaigns.
“I respect the voters,” he said. “I feel like if the voters are undecided, they’ll wait to take in those debates before making a decision.”
Brent Littlefield, LePage’s chief political consultant, said the governor’s debate schedule is still being finalized, and that by the time the election rolls around, the flap over debate appearances will be “a distant memory.”
“We’re about 98 percent finished, but we’re still working through some final details,” Littlefield said. “But if a person in Maine is interested in seeing or hearing the candidates debate the issues, there will be numerous opportunities.”