PORTLAND, Maine — Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler on Monday once again called for debates, urging his major-party opponents — Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud — to step onstage with him.
Cutler appeared at a Portland City Hall news conference flanked by empty podiums which bore the names Michaud and LePage. Cutler called them out for skipping myriad opportunities to debate him, and he said, “Voters want as many chances as possible to evaluate the candidates.
“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.”
But so far, the debates are seemingly important to only Cutler, at least for now. He said Monday that debate organizers should hold them even if he’s the only candidate to appear. LePage and Michaud have agreed to some debates, but only later this fall.
Maine political observers said Monday that Cutler’s repeated attempt to kick-start the debate schedule is as much about helping his struggling campaign as it is about presenting the candidates and their ideas to voters.
A poll released Monday by the liberal Maine People’s Resource Center showed Cutler polling at less than 13 percent, his lowest showing to date and about 30 points behind LePage and Michaud, who are in a dead heat. All the polls released publicly this year have put Cutler at a distant third.
Debates, then, would serve not only as an opportunity to get information to voters, but also as a chance to imprint an important visual in voters’ minds: Cutler standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his rivals, as an equal.
“It would validate his candidacy,” said Michael Cuzzi, a Democratic strategist and former Barack Obama campaign hand. “If he’s up there — as an equal, if you will — on that debate stage with those other two guys, he looks like every bit of the contender that they are.”
Vic Berardelli, a veteran Republican campaign strategist and staffer from Newburgh, agreed.
In addition to hoping debates would give himself a perceived bump in viability, Berardelli said Cutler also likely believes debates will favor his strengths. He is seen by political insiders and observers as a more polished, adept public speaker than either LePage or Michaud.
“He’s a policy-oriented guy,” Berardelli said. “So he thinks talking policies will differentiate himself from Michaud and LePage.”
Berardelli, Cuzzi and others also pointed out that Cutler is running without the support of major party machinery or independent groups boosting his candidacy. That makes the free media available through debates all the more appealing.
Representatives from both LePage’s and Michaud’s campaigns said debates were important, and emphasized that many will be held.
Brent Littlefield, LePage’s chief political consultant, said the governor’s debate schedule is still being completed, and 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.”
Lizzy Reinholt, a spokeswoman for Michaud’s campaign, said the Democrat had already agreed to six debates between Oct. 8 and 21.
“That’s twice as many as they did in the 2012 presidential election,” she said.
Cutler, however is looking at another election for hints at how many debates are appropriate: His campaign on Monday circulated the 2010 gubernatorial debate and forum schedule, which featured 31 events. Of those, 18 featured all the candidates.
One difference, though, is the makeup of the candidates this time around. The election in 2010 didn’t feature an incumbent, or a sitting congressman.
Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine, said the conversation about debates is valuable for voters. And, he said, it could benefit Cutler to be seen as more eager to talk policy with his opponents than the other way around.
“Any little bit of information that the citizenry can glean about a political candidate for office, as long as it’s not an absolute blatant falsehood, is of value,” he said. “If people think Gov. LePage and Congressman Michaud don’t want to debate and Cutler does, they may think that says something positive about Cutler.”
Monday also marked the first day that Maine voters could request and cast absentee ballots. Brewer said it’s unfortunate that some Mainers may vote before ever seeing or hearing a debate.
“That’s got to be a concern,” he said. “You’d like to think that people who need the debates to help them make up their mind aren’t going to vote early before they have one.”
BDN Portland Bureau Chief Seth Koenig contributed to this report. Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.