PORTLAND, Maine — The three candidates for governor in Maine on Tuesday escalated their rhetoric about whether they will appear together to debate before Election Day.
The situation evolved throughout the day:
— On Monday, Republican Gov. Paul LePage said he would not appear in any debate with Democratic nominee Mike Michaud unless Michaud denounces campaign attacks against LePage that claim the governor earlier this year described Social Security as “welfare.” LePage reiterated that stance to reporters Tuesday morning in Augusta.
— On Tuesday, Michaud stood by the Social Security comment and told reporters during a noontime media event in Portland that he will appear at a scheduled Oct. 8 debate hosted by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce — whether or not LePage attends. This was a change from previous statements by Michaud that he would not participate in debates without LePage.
— A half-hour after Michaud’s news conference, independent candidate Eliot Cutler told reporters at his Portland headquarters that he will appear at every debate and forum he has been invited to whether or not Michaud and LePage show up. Cutler, who has ranked a distant third place in the polls since last year, has been calling for debates since January.
— At 2 p.m., the Michaud campaign said in a prepared statement that it had received an email from the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, which it forwarded to the BDN, that the LePage campaign had “re-confirmed” the governor’s intention to participate in an Oct. 9 forum at Thomas College.
— When contacted by the BDN on Tuesday afternoon, Kimberly Lindlof, president and CEO of the Chamber, would not confirm Michaud’s claims. She said it was up to the campaigns to resolve the issue.
— Two senior members of the LePage campaign, spokesman Alex Willette and political consultant Brent Littlefield, did not respond to repeated voicemails and emails from the BDN about whether LePage will attend the Oct. 9 debate regardless of what Michaud does.
— Cutler campaign spokeswoman Crystal Canney said at 5 p.m. that the Cutler campaign received an email from the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce that stated LePage would attend the Oct. 9 debate. Canney said the campaign received the email on Monday.
— Michaud spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt clarified that Michaud has committed only to attending the Oct. 8 debate with or without LePage and would make decisions about future debates as they arise.
Tuesday’s events comprised the latest chapter in political posturing over the debates, which has been going on for months. LePage has refused to appear at debates or candidate forums at the same time as Michaud, including walking out on an energy forum earlier this month when he learned he would be seated with Michaud and Cutler.
Until Tuesday, Michaud had said he would not take part in gubernatorial debates without LePage because of his belief that Cutler is not a viable candidate and that the governor’s race is a two-man contest.
Cutler has trailed badly in the polls since last year.
On Monday, LePage threw the future of the debates into question when he said he wouldn’t appear with Michaud unless the Democrat denounced a third-party TV ad that says LePage called Social Security “welfare.”
“At my age, at 65, I can choose what I want to do and not do,” LePage told reporters Tuesday at the State House. “I have the right not to stand on a stage with someone who falsified information and I choose not to.”
LePage’s use of a powerful bargaining chip, in this case participation in the debates, continues a pattern established by the governor during his first term of advancing his agenda by refusing one thing in order to gain another.
LePage threatened in March 2013 to veto every bill passed by the Legislature until lawmakers agreed to his plan to pay off Medicaid debt to hospitals with proceeds from the state liquor contract. He later refused to issue voter-approved bonds when Democrats, who were supportive of the concept of paying off hospital debt, tried to amend his plan and enact their own.
LePage also refused earlier this year to issue voter-approved bonds in connection with his demand that the Legislature fund the state’s rainy day account to a certain level. He has threatened to veto, and actually vetoed, several budget bills, including one that included widespread tax cuts, even when it created the possibility of a state government shutdown. And in May 2013, he told lawmakers he would move his office out of the State House unless he was allowed to place a television screen in the hallway.
Through those tactics, LePage was able to accomplish many of his top goals as governor, but his opponents said the cost of that kind of leadership is too high.
“This is just more of his divisive, my-way-or-the-highway approach and it’s not the way you lead,” said Reinholt, Michaud’s spokeswoman. “The sad thing about it is that [if he refuses to debate] he won’t get held accountable. This is a governor who should have to stand in front of the voters and defend his record. … Gov. LePage would rather talk about anything other than his failed record.”
Cutler called LePage’s style “a combination between my way or the highway and blackmail.”
“He was able to maintain his positions by virtue of the fact that we’ve got this extraordinary division and gridlock in Augusta,” said Cutler.
During a Portland news conference scheduled Tuesday to respond to LePage’s statement that he would not debate Michaud unless the Democrat denounced the ad’s content, Michaud speculated that once LePage’s “temper tantrum” is over, he expects the governor to take part in the debates, just as virtually every major-party gubernatorial candidate in recent memory has done.
“The governor should be able to use the debates to clarify his position if he wants to,” said Michaud. “Gov. LePage had a bad day yesterday. We’ve heard him make threats and throw temper tantrums like this before, but he doesn’t follow through.”
Cutler criticized the back-and-forth between his opponents with a news conference at his campaign headquarters in Portland on Tuesday.
“Maine voters are fed up with this silly, stupid game of chicken,” said Cutler.
Depending on which campaign is asked, the candidates have agreed to five or six debates between Oct. 8 and Oct. 23.