AUGUSTA – The five candidates on the ballot for governor met in Maine’s capital city Saturday night for the first of two Great Debates, setting up the grinding final six weeks of the campaign as a spirited political sprint to Nov. 2.

The debate, sponsored by MaineToday Media and its media partners WGME-TV and WGAN radio, was broadcast statewide. The debate was open to the public, and attracted backers of the leading candidates.

It’s been unusual for all five candidates to be in the same room together. Until Saturday, most debates have lacked a full field. But all five — Republican front-runner Paul LePage, Democrat Libby Mitchell and the trio of independents, Eliot Cutler, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott — were together on the Jewett Hall stage at the University of Maine-Augusta.

Before the audience of more than 250 people, the sparks flew.

The candidates pounced on each other from the first question, submitted by Mary Dunn of Oakland. It asked how the candidates would balance the budget and what specific program cuts they would make.

Mitchell said she was proud of helping to balance the last state budget through “shared sacrifice.” Cutler then swiped at Mitchell, saying the budget wasn’t truly balanced because it involved furlough days for state workers and borrowing money across fiscal years.

“We can’t make promises because when we have a $1 billion hole in the budget, you have to stop digging the hole,” Cutler said.

Cutler also challenged LePage, questioning how much it would cost the state to stop taxing pensions, as LePage had proposed recently. Cutler said it would cost about $100 million.

“Paul, there’s no ATM outside the governor’s office,” Cutler said.

Mitchell also went after LePage for his fast-track business plan, saying that such an idea could lead to a nuclear power plant on Popham Beach.

LePage answered the attacks by repeating his campaign pledge to promote policies that reduce the role of government in Mainers’ personal and commercial lives.

“Government should be working for the people of Maine, not the other way around,” LePage said.

Scott announced his plan to offer a voluntary 32-hour workweek to state employees, while Moody pledged to tie his salary to job creation — $1 in salary per new job created — a proposal Scott said made a “mockery” of hardworking Mainers.

Tense exchanges came after the candidates were asked about “honesty and integrity” and the use of negative tactics in the campaign. LePage blasted Mitchell for recent TV commercials which accuse him of choosing nuclear power over the environment.

“I do not attack my opponents; I do not make ridiculous commercials or get under people’s skin,” LePage said. Mitchell stood by the commercial, saying it’s not a personal attack, but was rather meant to reveal policy differences.

In a “lightning round” of rapid-fire questions, the candidates also revealed quick differences and touched on lighter subjects. Asked whether they would consider using furlough days again for state workers, only Mitchell said yes.

Asked if they have any points on their driver’s licenses, all the candidates said no, except LePage, who said he didn’t know.

On an out-of-state politician they admire, both LePage and Cutler chose New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, while Mitchell cited former President Clinton, Moody chose former President  Reagan, and Scott struggled to come up with anyone current, settling on Abraham Lincoln or George Mason.

In his closing statement, LePage addressed a tax issue that has dogged him for the past two weeks, saying that his wife’s decision to set up her home in Florida “had nothing to do with tuition or taxes.” He then introduced his wife, Ann, who was in the audience, by asking her to stand.

“The last two weeks have been real rough,” LePage said, berating the media for having raised the tax issue. “I apologize to the people of Maine for using the ‘BS’ word.”

LePage had used the profanity during a recent conference in Portland, in response to a reporter’s question about his wife’s taxes.

With less than six weeks to go, the campaigns move into overdrive. Tonight, former President Clinton rallies support for Mitchell in an appearance at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour will rally Republicans on Monday in Portland.

The second of the Great Debates will be Oct. 30 at the Irish Heritage Center in Portland. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can contacted at 791-6457 or at:

bkeyes@pressherald.com 

MaineToday Media Writer Scott Monroe can contacted at 861-9239 or at:

smonroe@centralmaine.com