PORTLAND — Maine’s seven Republican candidates for governor sparred Friday evening over whether the state missed a chance to keep The Jackson Labatory from expanding in Florida, if it’s a wise investment to buy a failing railroad in Aroostook County and what it takes to be an effective leader in tough economic times, in the second of two Great Debates, hosted by MaineToday Media and WGME-13.

The candidates made their appeals before an estimated 2,200 party loyalists who gathered at the Portland Expo to kick off the Republican state convention.

With the primary election little more than four weeks away, the candidates are hoping to distinguish themselves in a crowded field that includes four Democrats and an Independent.

Friday’s encounter featured Steve Abbott, former chief of staff of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins; Bill Beardsley, a former president of Husson College; Matt Jacobson, the chief executive office of Maine & Co.; Paul LePage, Waterville’s mayor and the general manager of Marden’s; Sen. Peter Mills, a longtime state lawmaker; Les Otten, a Greenwood businessman; and Bruce Poliquin, a Georgetown businessman and developer.

The candidates were asked about Jackson Labs, the Bar Harbor biomedical research company that employs 1,200 people in Maine.

Jackson Labs is being courted with $260 million in state and county money to expand to a new research campus in Florida, where it could create 200 new jobs.

Jackson Labs has said that the money being offered by Florida, and the presense of top biomedical research facilities, led them to consider the expansion south. It also said it plans to create at least 200 new jobs in Bar Harbor over the next five and 10 years, regardless of what happens in Florida.

Otten and LePage contended Maine should be doing more to help the labs stay here.

“I think we missed a huge opportunity,” Otten said.

LePage said the state failed to be proactive.

“Wealth goes where it’s welcome and stays where it’s appreciated,” he said.

But most of the other candidates took the view that Maine can’t directly compete with Florida has to offer.

Beardsley said that instead of pursuing a “field of dreams” strategy, Maine needs to understand exactly what businesses need and want to expand here. Abbott said Maine can’t compete with the money Florida is offering, but didn’t help matters by alienating Jackson eight years ago, when it imposed a fine for a minor environmental infraction.

“That’s what’s driving businesses out of Maine,” he said.

Jacobson, who recruits businesses for a living, said Maine lacks the educational and training programs Jackson Labs and other biomedical firms need.

The winner of the Republican primary on June 8 will face off in November against one of four Democrats: Pat McGowan, a former conservation commission and lawmaker; Libby Mitchell, president of the state senate; Steven Rowe, a former attorney general; and Rosa Scarcelli, a Portland businesswoman.

Also in the race and running as an Independent is Eliot Cutler, who has a long career in law and government.

Staff writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

[email protected]

6 p.m.

PORTLAND — The seven Republican candidates for Maine governor are preparing to face off this evening in the second of two Great Debates, hosted by MaineToday Media and WGME-13.

Tonight’s debate begins at 7 p.m. at the Portland Expo. An estimated 2,200 party loyalists have gathered at the city building today to kick off the Republican state convention, a record turnout for an off-year election, organizers say.

With the primary election little more than four weeks away, the candidates are hoping to distinguish themselves in a crowded field that includes four Democrats and an Independent.

Tonight’s debate features Steve Abbott, former chief of staff of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins; Bill Beardsley, a former president of Husson College; Matt Jacobson, the chief executive office of Maine & Co.; Paul LePage, Waterville’s mayor and the general manager of Marden’s; Sen. Peter Mills, a longtime state lawmaker; Les Otten, a Greenwood businessman; and Bruce Poliquin, a Georgetown businessman and developer.

The winner of the Republican primary on June 8 will face off in November against one of four Democrats: Pat McGowan, a former conservation commissioner and lawmaker; Libby Mitchell, president of the state Senate; Steven Rowe, a former attorney general; and Rosa Scarcelli, a Portland businesswoman.

Also in the race and running as an Independent is Eliot Cutler, who has a long career in law and government.