PORTLAND – The seven Republican candidates for governor met Tuesday night at the University of Southern Maine for their last debate before the June 8 primary.

The televised debate, held in Hannaford Hall, drew more than 225 people. Portland ABC affiliate WMTW-TV (Channel 8) sponsored the forum, which was hosted by Channel 8 reporter Shannon Moss.

Only a week before the election, none of the candidates appeared able to set himself apart from the large field.

Jelena Sarenac, an undecided voter, said after the debate, “I’m still undecided. I think I’d like to hear the Democrats before I make up my mind. I wasn’t blown away by any of (the Republicans).”

Sarenac, a senior at USM, said the candidates were short on specifics and spent too much time talking in generalities.

Moss referred to poll results, reported Tuesday, showing that 47 percent of GOP voters are still undecided. She asked the candidates to differentiate themselves from their opponents.

Les Otten jumped in, noting that he had a 7 percentage-point lead in that poll over Paul Le-Page, who was second.

“The voters are looking for someone with real-world experience. I’ve been there. I’ve been knocked down and gotten back up,” said Otten, former owner of the Sunday River ski resort in Newry.

Bruce Poliquin spent most of his time focusing on a familiar theme in his campaign: that the next governor should be a professional business manager, not a politician.

“We need someone who watches spending like a hawk,” Poliquin said.

Steve Abbott may have gotten the most attention — before the debate started. About 40 boisterous supporters — each wearing an Abbott T-shirt — stood outside Hannaford Hall waving signs on his behalf.

Abbott said his campaign is gaining momentum, having been endorsed by the Bangor Daily News and MaineToday Media, which publishes The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, the Coastal Journal in Bath and their respective websites.

Rosemarie Russell of Westbrook went into the debate with her mind made up. It hadn’t changed after the debate.

“Paul LePage is a real man. He has great character, and he is a problem solver. He is a man of the people,” Russell said.

“I don’t claim to be a politician or a public speaker,” LePage, the mayor of Waterville, told the audience in his opening address — part of which was in French. “But I am the only candidate who cut taxes without cutting services.”

Kurt Gagnon, a USM sophomore, said he went into the debate as an undecided Republican voter. Like Sarenac, he wasn’t blown away by any of the candidates. But he said he was impressed with Abbott. Gagnon said he liked Abbott because of the way he carried himself and spoke.

Also participating in the debate were Republican candidates Bill Beardsley, Matt Jacobson and Peter Mills.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]