Silly me. I thought Libby Mitchell was running for governor.

Instead, the Democratic nominee for the Blaine House has chosen this moment in a hot-and-getting-hotter election season to present herself as the defender of all things democratic — with emphasis on the small “d.”

Why?

Good question. If only there was a good answer.

Mitchell raised eyebrows across the entire political spectrum this week when she opted out of two gubernatorial candidate forums — one before a coalition of business groups in Bangor on Thursday, the other upcoming with the Maine Pulp and Paper Association — because organizers limited the forum to her, Republican Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler.

Left off the guest list were independents Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott, both of whom qualified to be on the November ballot but have registered nary a blip in early election polling.

Unfair?

Some, especially Moody and Scott and their scattered supporters, undoubtedly would say yes.

Disrespectful of the democratic process?

Perhaps, although it’s usually up to the host (rather than an invited guest) to decide how many seats to put at the table.

Worth going to the mat over if you’re a major-party candidate who has yet to publicly produce a poll putting you at the front of this horse race?

Not a chance.

Predictably, Mitchell’s no-show had no sooner hit the news cycle when the tongues started wagging about what’s really going on here.

Some, most notably the Maine Republican Party, banged out a press release titled, “Libby Mitchell Runs from Economic Development Debate.” The salvo went on to suggest that Mitchell was afraid to appear before such a group and defend her “long, sordid record of anti-business activity.”

That, of course, is pure baloney. Whatever Mitchell’s business record may or may not be, to avoid talking about economic development during this campaign would be to not campaign at all.

Another theory, voiced by debate organizer John Porter, president and CEO of the Bangor Regional Chamber of Commerce, is that Mitchell’s campaign wanted all three independents up there on the stage to take some wind out of Cutler’s sails.

“I think they feel that if Eliot has the stage to himself as the only independent candidate, that just strengthens him as a candidate,” Porter told Press Herald staff writer Matt Wickenheiser on Wednesday.

From a strategic standpoint, that at least makes sense: When it comes to dividing the electoral pie this November, Moody and Scott appear to pose a bigger threat to LePage and/or Cutler than to Mitchell — hence, the better they do, the better she does.

(Put another way, would Mitchell have insisted that everyone receive an invite if the marginal candidate were, say, a Green Independent Party member who clearly threatened to siphon votes from her?)

Contacted Thursday, Mitchell spokesman David Loughran reiterated the campaign’s claim that the decision to stay away is based on principle, not politics.

“As much cynicism as there is in campaigning and politics, having a principled stand and doing the right thing is still a core Maine value,” said Loughran. Besides, he added, “doing the right thing has its political benefits as well.”

Maybe so, although that raises yet another ticklish question: Is sticking up for the also-rans the “right thing” for the moment? Or is Mitchell prepared to skip a stretch-run debate in, say, mid-October because either Moody or Scott (or both) didn’t get an invitation?

“I don’t think I’m willing to say that definitively,” replied Loughran. “That’s a totally different scenario.”

That it is. And if and when Mitchell inevitably starts showing up sans Moody and Scott, it also will be a golden opportunity for her opponents either to claim she’s running scared or, worse yet, label her an opportunistic flip-flopper.

Only Mitchell and her inner circle know for certain whether this out-of-nowhere announcement in fact is rooted in principle or pragmatism. (My guess is it’s a little bit of both.)

But either way, its effect is the same: not being up there in Bangor with LePage and Cutler Thursday morning, Libby Mitchell squandered an opportunity to advance what at this critical moment should be her one and only mission — to become Maine’s next chief executive.

Not its chief democrat.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]mainetoday.com