Labor Day is the traditional beginning of the political season, when voters who are not hard-core partisans take their first hard look at the candidates.

Columbus Day is the traditional beginning of season when people start whining about how they wish they had other candidates to vote for.

As the leaves start to turn, expect to hear the lament, “I wish we could vote for none of the above.”

For everyone but the true believers, deciding who to vote for becomes a process of elimination, and fortunately for Maine voters, the candidates for governor gave us plenty to work with Saturday when they faced off at the University of Maine Augusta for their first televised debate.

The first to go in my book were independents Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott, who let us know that they weren’t serious about running for governor before they opened their mouths.

Guys, next time you run for governor, wear a tie.

They probably thought they were showing that they were not typical candidates, mindlessly following pointless rules (this independent-thinking thing was undercut by two of them coming up with the same idea).

Ties are stupid, why wear one?

Because governor is kind of a coat-and-tie job, that’s why, and a televised debate is a dress-up occasion. Thanks, fellas, better luck next time.

That leaves Paul LePage, Eliot Cutler and Libby Mitchell, who was not wearing a tie but gets a pass because she is a woman. (This is not a break for her. The professional clothing code for women is much more complicated and full of pitfalls than the one for men, who just need to follow a few well-established rules.)

For the kind of moderate voter who has always carried a lot of weight in Maine elections, Cutler must have looked like the star of the debate.

He landed well-aimed attacks on both Republican and Democratic rivals and expressed his vision for how he would address Maine’s economic problems.

He was so active in the debate that his polls must be telling him what the public polls say – that this well-spoken, well-financed, experienced government official and business man is making no traction with the voters and it’s time to swing for the fences.

contrast we had LePage, who the polls say is sitting on a big lead, and acted like it.

He kept his proposals vague and avoided engaging his opponents, even taking two opportunities to make the same joke about how a Democratic National Committee ad on his environmental record has been good for his fundraising.

When questioned – by Cutler – about the cost of his plan to end taxing pensions, LePage told his opponent to do his own research.

“You’re interested in it, you ought to go look at it.”

Cutler already had. It would cost about $50 million a year, but if you want to know where LePage would get the money, you’d have to wait for another debate.

“Paul LePage’s Maine” is supposed to strike fear in the heart of every moderate and liberal, because it would mean the end of environmental regulation and radical cutbacks to state programs.

A more realistic fear, however, is a period where nothing gets done but a lot of fighting.

For a really scary vision, imagine a state in a government shutdown, where the governor looks across a stack of vetoed legislation piled high on his desk and explains to out-of-state business leaders why Maine would be a good place to invest their money,

Even if there are Republican gains in the Legislature, it will take a wide range of political skills to move changes the size of what LePage has in mind through it, and a candidate who blows up and walks out of a press conference over a question he must have known was coming hasn’t yet shown that he could do that.

So if you eliminate Cutler because he can’t get elected and LePage because he can’t govern if he did win, that leaves Mitchell.

So far, she’s run a confusing campaign. She got more attention for the debate or two that she stayed away from than for the many she attended.

Her advertisements, focusing on LePage’s environmental stance, appear to going after voters that she should have locked up a long time ago.

Her proposals, like helping to fund higher education by renegotiating the state liquor store contract, seem reasonable but small bore in an election where the people seem to be demanding heavy artillery.

But she’s still standing, and if the private poll that she released last week can be believed, she’s a lot closer to LePage than the other numbers indicate.

So, even if she’s not their first choice, voters looking for the anti-LePage may work their way back to Mitchell, by process of elimination.

As everyone says (and nobody believes), five weeks is a long time in politics and anything can happen. Like maybe those two guys can pick up a couple of ties and really shake this thing up.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481, or: gkesich@pressherald.com