SOUTH PORTLAND – As Cynthia Dill settled in to teach her government class Wednesday at Southern Maine Community College, one of her students asked the obvious question: Aren’t you supposed to be at the U.S. Senate candidates’ debate?

Those who watched the first debate among the major candidates to replace U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe had the same question: Where was Dill?

After all, Dill, a distant third in the latest polls, has been struggling to get media attention since the race began. The debate, the first of at least 15 that are scheduled, would have provided some of the exposure the Democrat needs to make a strong showing on Election Day.

However, Dill had a higher priority. The state senator from Cape Elizabeth had missed one of her two classes last week to attend committee hearings at the State House. She said she didn’t want to skip class twice in two weeks.

Dill, who will be paid $2,091 to teach at SMCC this semester, said she wanted to attend the debate at Texas Instruments in South Portland. Her campaign had tried to live-stream the forum so that her class of about 30 students could watch their teacher in action. But she said debate organizers couldn’t pull it off.

Also, she said, the debate was invitation only.

“If it had been a public forum, I suppose it would have been a higher priority,” she said.

Dill acknowledged that she would be criticized for her decision.

“I would have been criticized if I had attended the debate and missed my job,” she said.

It has been a difficult campaign for Dill. The duly elected Democratic nominee finds herself carrying the mantle for her party, but she hasn’t gotten the party’s financial – or in some cases verbal – support.

The reason, though never stated publicly, is that party leaders fear that a strong performance by Dill will produce a nightmare scenario in which she and independent Angus King split the progressive vote and hand the election to Republican Charlie Summers.

Initially, Dill struggled with the lack of support from her party. She lashed out at national Democrats who failed to recognize her in an online profile of candidates in state races. Since then, the outspoken civil rights attorney has appeared to focus less on the abandonment and more on her message.

On Wednesday, she denounced another round of third-party ads by a Republican group that aims to bolster her candidacy, calling it “cynical” and “deceptive.” The ads, she said, did not speak for her and robbed her of her voice.

Over at Texas Instruments, King and Summers joked about Dill’s absence. Summers said he would answer questions twice.

Their quips didn’t seem to bother Dill, who focused on her class. The lesson centered on Tuesday’s killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and the controversy over the response by the Obama administration and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

She played statements from both sides and asked the class to break into groups and weigh the responses. The debate was lively. Like Dill, many of the students had strong opinions.

Before the students reconvened for a class discussion, Dill reminded them to be respectful.

“Politics are sensitive and people have strong beliefs,” she said. “You think everyone agrees with you. They don’t.”

Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

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