LEWISTON, Maine — An Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce debate featuring two of the three candidates in the race to be Maine’s next governor gave voters a head-to-head comparison of independent Eliot Cutler and Democrat Mike Michaud.

The matchup between Cutler and Michaud may prove relevant as the two are closer on most policy issues than either are to incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

The one thing both agreed on before the crowd of about 350 people at the Ramada Inn Conference Center was LePage has to go.

Cutler, who has been trailing a distant third in the polls, has also been the subject of Democratic critics who paint him as a spoiler for Michaud, suggesting he could siphon off just enough Democratic votes to give LePage a pathway to a second term.

Cutler took that assertion on early and throughout the discussion, hammering on the idea that partisan gridlock, often fostered by party leaders in Augusta, was the downfall of a functional state government.

“This race isn’t just about showing Paul LePage the door or about the interests of one political party or the other,” Cutler said. “This election is about the state of Maine and our future.”

Cutler said that under Democrats and Republicans, Maine’s economy has foundered for more than a decade.

“We can’t afford more of the partisan politics that have families and the economy of this state trapped — trapped, in an 11-year-long nose dive,” Cutler said.

Michaud countered with his long record in elected office — both in Congress and as a former state Senate president — of working on bipartisan bills and reform.

Michaud also did his best to highlight LePage’s often-criticized outspoken mannerisms or the governor’s hard-line bargaining style.

“All you have to do is look at what this governor has done with 180 vetoes,” Michaud said. “It shows his inability to work with people, even members of his own party.”

Michaud said he would focus on working with individuals and focus on their good ideas, even if he couldn’t agree on all issues.

The way he’s handled relationships with Lewiston-Auburn residents and business people as a congressman is how he would run the governor’s office, Michaud said, touting the fact he’s “always had an open door” and despite disagreements — “not one iota of disrespect.”

But Cutler said Michaud, or anyone who believed an elected official who was part of the party system could negotiate effectively outside the realm of party politics, was “naive.”

“What’s at stake in this election and what’s going to be at stake in the Legislature is not the interests of one party of the other, not the survival of one party or the other, not the dominance of one party or the other but the future of the state that we all love,” Cutler said. “We’ve got to put aside our partisan differences … but we’ve got to put our labels aside and work for the common good once and for all.”

While Michaud and Cutler shared some common views on health care and increasing the minimum wage in Maine to something greater than $7.50 an hour they also demonstrated clear disagreements.

Both said they believe the state needs to do a better job funding public education — especially pre-kindergarten programs — but they differed over how much funding was necessary.

“Study after study has shown, the more you put up front in those investments, you’ll have better results in the end,” Michaud said.

Cutler agreed but said his plan would include up to $26 million in new funding for pre-K, while Michaud’s plan looks to leverage private funding with only about $1 million of state funding.

Cutler’s plan includes extending early childhood programs to all school districts in Maine and pumping another $25 million to schools that serve areas of high poverty.

To fund many of his proposals, Cutler depends on reforming the state’s tax policies and increasing the state sales tax, either a permanent increase from 5.5 percent to 6 percent or a seasonal increase from May to October that would bump the sales tax to 7 percent. That increase would exclude automobiles and building materials.

“So that the 15 million people that visit our state every year will pay a little bit of the costs of taking care of this great state,” Cutler said. In all the change would bring in an additional $185 million each year to the state’s coffers, according to Cutler, who would use $100 million of it for property tax relief and the rest to prop up public education programs.

The candidates also differed on what they would try to do to improve higher education in Maine. Michaud has suggested a program that would allow state university students free tuition for their sophomore year. Michaud has also proposed lowering in-state tuition by 25 percent.

Cutler said the state does need to lower the cost of higher education and could do so by merging the state’s community college system with the state university system.

He said the system currently has too much duplication.

Cutler also suggested this would allow the system to refocus its mission to serve students better and give them the skills and education they need for a changing and emerging Maine economy.

LePage, who was asked in February to attend the debate, declined in September, citing a scheduling conflict. But that didn’t stop chamber officials from reserving a spot for LePage in the parking lot. They also prepared a placard with his name for the forum, although they did not place it before an empty chair.

The governor’s staff noted he was on an official trip to Baileyville in Washington County where he was attending a groundbreaking for a pair of new tissue paper-making machines set to start up there in late 2015.

The new machines represent a $120 million capital investment in the state and, according to a release from LePage’s office, would produce about 80 direct full-time jobs.

In their closing remarks, Cutler and Michaud asked Lewiston-Auburn residents for their votes with thoughtful and kind statements about the community.

Michaud said Lewiston-Auburn had accomplished much in the last 12 years. He pointed to the Twin Cities’ motto: “L/A: It’s happening here!”

“And the reason it’s happening here is because these communities have found a way to work together,” Michaud said. “That’s what has to happen in Augusta.”

Cutler also asked and thanked voters for their support but said they should refrain from making the mistake of repeating history by voting for LePage or Michaud.

“I think each and every one of us believes, at least deeply in our hearts, that Maine’s future can be full of amazing prosperity but not if we keep doing things the same way,” Cutler said. “Not if we settle for a choice between what’s not working today and what didn’t work before, not if we accept politics as usual. We have to do things differently. We have to think differently, we have to act differently and if we do we will have amazing success.”

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.