Correction published Thursday, October 7, 2010:

Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul Le Page’s position on oil drilling off the coast of Maine was mistated in the article below. In a May 27 interview with Maine Public Broadcasting Network LePage said he favors such drilling.

ORONO — Egged on by provocative questions from students, the two front-runners in the race for Maine governor took aim at each other Tuesday during a forum at the University of Maine.

Republican Paul LePage and Democrat Libby Mitchell spoke along with the three independent candidates on the ballot – Eliot Cutler, Kevin Scott and Shawn Moody – in individual 45-minute sessions that focused on higher education and the economy.

The forum, moderated by John Rebar, executive director of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, was broadcast live online and at other University of Maine System locations.

Speaking first, LePage, the mayor of Waterville, pointed to his “Learn to Earn” program, which he said is inspired by a program in North Carolina in which students have the option of attending five years of high school to earn associate degrees or two years of transferable college credits.

LePage also seized on the topic of education to take a veiled swipe at Mitchell, whom he did not name.

“I believe the most important person in the classroom is the student,” LePage said. “My opponent will say the most important person in the classroom is the teacher. I don’t believe that.”

Mitchell has been endorsed by the Maine Education Association, which represents the state’s public school teachers.

Asked later by a student to respond to LePage’s criticism, Mitchell said she didn’t know how to respond except that “I support both.”

“I don’t know what it means, frankly,” Mitchell said of Le-Page’s remark. “I do support teachers. I am a teacher; my mom was a teacher. You can’t have a quality school without quality teachers.”

Mitchell was challenged by a student about whether her “negative attack ads” against LePage are in line with her campaign promise to use “the politics of hope and not fear.”

Mitchell defended the TV ads, which have criticized LePage for his position on the environment.

“Campaigns are about choices,” she said. “When I put up an ad about drilling off the Gulf of Maine – I disagree with Mr. LePage that drilling off the coast of Maine is appropriate. I see it as making sure people know the differences.”

LePage has not specifically said he supports drilling for oil off the coast of Maine, though he has said “nothing is off the table.”

Mitchell accused LePage of distorting her voting record in the Legislature, “which I’m very proud of.”

Students asked LePage if he thinks global warming is a myth, and whether he would reject funding from the federal government and in turn affect federal support of university research.

On global warming, LePage responded, “I just don’t know how severe it is, and I’m not sure how much we as human beings contribute to it.” He said, “Scientists are divided on it.”

Previously, on a radio show, LePage said “Exactly” after the host said global warming is a “hoax” based on “lying science.”

On federal funding, LePage said he would “take every federal dollar on the table,” but he held a pamphlet of the U.S. Constitution and said he would “look at the fine print and make sure they don’t buy us off.”

“If they’re going to give us money and put strings attached, I will look at it very carefully,” LePage said. “I will evaluate the strings, and some money I will not take.”

Cutler portrayed himself as the middle-of-the-road choice between LePage and Mitchell, who come from the “two wings of each party” and are representative of the typical politicians Mainers are tired of seeing, he said.

Faced with a budget shortfall as large as $1 billion, Cutler said, the state must “stop the bleeding” and then make targeted investments because the state’s economy is now “dead in the water.”

As to whether he would support the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, which supports research and development in the university system, Cutler said he wouldn’t make promises to any “special interests,” including higher education.

He outlined his proposal to merge Maine’s university and community college systems and look at consolidating campuses and centers throughout the state, to reduce costs and lower tuition.

Moody rejected Cutler’s consolidation proposal, saying that the university and community college systems serve different missions, and that the university’s seven campuses are vital to the “fabric” of each community. Moody lives in Gorham, home to one of the University of Southern Maine’s two campuses.

Moody said the school systems could run more efficiently in much the same way as his business, Moody’s Collision Centers, by using technology to consolidate payroll, administration and other “behind-the-scenes” operations.

“It’s taking things that don’t add value. I’ll call you folks the customers,” Moody said, referring to students in the audience. “The customer doesn’t need to know who’s doing payroll or marketing. There’s tremendous economies of scale in those areas.”

Scott emphasized his background in hiring and recruiting for high-tech startup companies, saying he stands apart from the other candidates because he has no political ties and wants to “move off the same old practices we’ve used.”

He said the key to Maine’s economic future is providing jobs in emerging markets, namely agriculture, such as the Backyard Farms tomato greenhouse in Madison.

Scott said he would require Maine schools to get their food from Maine-based producers, and “there’s your market right there” to expand the industry.

“The future of farming is local,” he said.