PORTLAND – Two Republican U.S. Senate candidates continued to argue over past and future tax votes and all six expressed some degree of unhappiness with the votes taken by their GOP predecessor at the final debate before Tuesday’s primary.

In a televised debate at the University of Southern Maine on Saturday evening, former state Senate President Rick Bennett and Secretary of State Charlie Summers extended their discussion from previous debates over tax votes: Summers’ vote for a tax increase when he was a state lawmaker and Bennett’s refusal to sign a no-tax-hike pledge.

Bennett said Summers supported a tax hike to retain Maine’s program to give laptop computers to middle school students.

“Charlie, I was there,” Bennett said at one point. “You took the deal, I didn’t.”

But Summers noted that he has signed a pledge to not raise taxes if he’s the nominee and is elected to replace Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who decided earlier this year not to seek a fourth term in the Senate because partisan fighting keeps lawmakers from getting anything done.

Bennett said that pledge would prevent him from seeking to eliminate tax subsidies for things like alternative energy ventures, ethanol production and agriculture. Since eliminating subsidies would raise taxes for some, Bennett said, he can’t pledge not to increase taxes.

In response to a question, several candidates rejected the term RINO — Republican In Name Only — to describe more moderate members of their party, but all said they disagree with some of the decisions of Snowe, considered one of the most moderate members of her party in the Senate.

For instance, Attorney General Bill Schneider said he wouldn’t have voted as Snowe did to approve a rescue package for big banks and stimulus spending, but added, “anybody who wants to throw stones at Olympia Snowe is misguided.”

State Sen. Deb Plowman, the party’s assistant majority leader, said she’s been called a RINO on occasion and sees it as an unnecessarily derogatory term for those who are willing to work with moderates.

Former Lisbon Selectman Scott D’Amboise tried to pick an argument with State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, suggesting that Poliquin’s support for federal laws requiring background checks for firearms purchases indicates he wasn’t sufficiently supportive of 2nd Amendment rights.

But Poliquin wouldn’t bite, pointing out on a couple of occasions that he has a perfect “A” grade from the National Rifle Association.

Bennett also took a shot at Poliquin, whose ads and mailings have stressed a close working relationship with Gov. Paul Lepage – so much so that LePage recently put out a statement reiterating that he won’t endorse a candidate until after the primary.

“If Paul LePage was Batman, Bruce (Poliquin) would be there as Robin, the Boy Wonder,” Bennett said. “Do you really want to elect the Boy Wonder to the U.S. Senate?”

A few of the candidates bristled at Poliquin’s characterization of them as “career politicians,” with Plowman shooting back that Poliquin’s run for governor two years ago, followed by seeking the treasurer’s post and now a Senate race, could lead some to believe that he’s become “a career candidate.”

The candidates all pledged to take on Angus King, running as an independent, head-on in the fall campaign, ignoring the four candidates for the Democratic nomination on Tuesday.

Asked if King had been a good governor, several mentioned that he took office with a budget surplus, and left with a deficit looming. But, while not all would agree to swear off negative ads, all six agreed he was a nice guy.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com