PORTLAND, Maine — Former President Bill Clinton, known for his engaging and energizing off-the-cuff speeches, lived up to expectations Tuesday at a rally in favor of Democratic nominee for Maine governor Mike Michaud.
Clinton, one of the most popular presidents in recent history, was quick to reference his previous visits to Maine in 2010, when he campaigned on behalf of then-Democratic gubernatorial nominee Libby Mitchell.
“I was here four years ago trying to talk y’all out of doing what just happened,” he said of the election of Gov. Paul LePage.
Clinton said his experience as governor of Arkansas, where he had a divided government, was more relevant to his visit to Portland than his presidency.
“Here’s what I know,” said Clinton. “Everywhere in the world where people are following a model of inclusive decision-making and good cooperation, good things are happening. Everywhere in the world people favor division over inclusion, good things are not happening.”
Clinton’s characterization of Michaud as a negotiator and problem solver follows a theme the Michaud campaign has been amplifying in recent weeks: leadership style. Clinton built his case for Michaud as a problem-solver who eschews political ideology and said that when “something happens that nobody anticipates,” Michaud will have the poise to pull the state through it.
When the former two-term president said, “I believe this guy will be an unbelievable governor,” he created what is likely to be an often-repeated campaign soundbite between now and the November election.
Michaud, who preceded Clinton at the podium, compared himself with LePage not on policy but on leadership style.
“It’s more than just our values and vision that divides Gov. LePage and me,” said Michaud to a raucous crowd. “It’s about temperament and leadership style. He is too divisive and wedded to his ideology.”
Michaud referenced the withering attacks he’s sustaining from Republicans and independent candidate Eliot Cutler.
“They will stop at nothing to tear us down,” said Michaud. “They have millions of dollars to spend, and they will not hesitate to bend the truth about me.”
Michaud, Maine’s 2nd Congressional District representative who has been in elected office continuously since 1980, is running for governor against incumbent Republican LePage and independent Cutler, who nearly won the gubernatorial election in 2010. Also running is independent Lee Schultheis of Freeport.
This wasn’t Clinton’s first time in Maine stumping for a Democrat. He visited twice in 2010 on behalf of Democratic candidate for governor Libby Mitchell, who eventually finished third behind LePage and Cutler with 19 percent of the vote in a five-way race. Clinton came to Southern Maine Community College and the Lewiston Armory in separate visits.
Clinton used his Lewiston visit in 2010 to urge young people to vote.
“Any young person who doesn’t vote this Tuesday is playing Russian roulette with their future,” said Clinton to about 700 in attendance.
Clinton, who remained popular in the polls during his two terms in the White House — despite allegations of romantic affairs and an impeachment by Congress for lying under oath about one of them — has become a prolific and high-profile campaigner. His wife, Hillary Clinton, a former New York senator and U.S. secretary of state, is considered a frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
James Carville, a former campaign adviser for Bill Clinton, campaigned on Michaud’s behalf in Maine in early August.
LePage and Cutler also have benefited from the support of high-profile politicians. New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie has stumped with LePage twice in Maine in recent months, and Cutler has been touting the endorsement of Maine independent Sen. Angus King, including featuring King in a television advertisement launched this week. King, a former Maine governor and one of the most popular politicians in recent Maine history, also endorsed Cutler in 2010. That endorsement came with three days left in the 2010 campaign, as Cutler was experiencing a rapid rise in the polls.
Clinton’s visit comes on the same day the Republican Governors Association released a campaign advertisement in Maine that framed Michaud as more liberal than Clinton. The Maine Republican Party had a similar take on the visit and launched a backhanded criticism of Michaud through a straight-up compliment for Clinton.
“President Clinton represents the intellectual curiosity and ideological independence that Congressman Michaud so thoroughly lacks,” said Maine GOP spokesman David Sorensen in a written statement. “It’s telling that even after winning only two statewide races in the past quarter-century, Maine Democrats are more enthusiastic about a president who left office 13 years ago than their current candidate for governor.”
Crystal Canney, communications director for the Cutler campaign, criticized the appearance.
“Whether it’s Clinton setting the table for Hillary’s presidential run or Chris Christie setting his own table for a presidential run, these visits are just more politics as usual,” Canney said in a written statement. “Clinton visited twice for Libby Mitchell in 2010 with no benefit. The problems of Maine people will not be solved by an ex-president of the United States, by the governor of New Jersey or by their political parties.”
Whether visits to Maine from national political celebrities has any effect on the electorate is debatable. Though their presence is unquestionably valuable in terms of fundraising — Clinton participated in a photo line where a donation to Michaud’s campaign earned a photo with the former president — the likes of Clinton and Christie are most likely to rally voters who already are supporting Michaud and LePage, respectively.
Recent polling in Maine’s gubernatorial race shows Michaud and LePage neck-and-neck, with Cutler a distant third.
And Clinton’s mission on Tuesday was different than it was in 2010 for Mitchell, who at the time was in a free-fall in the polls. Whether his visit energizes Democrats to turn out in November remains to be seen.
He said Democrats’ biggest challenge is bringing out the vote.
“In nonpresidential years, the people who are the hard-core voters on our side tend to show up,” Clinton said. “Your responsibility is to go get the people who aren’t here and tell them they’ve got to go vote.”
Michaud’s campaign will benefit from a second high-profile visit in as many days when Vice President Joe Biden tours Portsmouth Naval Shipyard with Michaud and 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree, who is also running for re-election.
An earlier version of this story reported that Hillary Clinton was a New York state senator. She was a U.S. senator.