Recently, Eliot Cutler challenged Mike Michaud and Gov. LePage to a series of debates across the state focused on jobs and the economy.

In his news release, Cutler said, “We have plenty of time to have at least one debate in every one of Maine’s 16 counties and Maine people deserve a chance to hear from each one of us how we will change Maine’s direction, empower Maine’s future and bend the curve on Maine’s poverty rate.”

Predictably, Cutler’s offer was rejected by his rivals, who dismissed it as a stunt.

They argued, correctly, that Cutler wants to debate primarily because he’s seeking relevance and media coverage, two things in short supply when you’re not in office, have no party and the election is still 10 months away.

And while it makes no sense for Michaud and LePage to let Cutler use them to create a platform for his campaign, Cutler is nonetheless onto something with his proposal.

Yes, his debate idea is dead on arrival. But the idea that jobs and the economy should take a central and – most importantly – substantive place in these campaigns is spot on.

But more often than not, that’s not what the campaigns are talking about. We see considerably more about endorsements, polling, fundraising, fictional “welfare fraud” or other issues that leave Maine’s economic challenges woefully unaddressed.

And, lest everyone forget, our economic challenges are immense.

We’re not forecast to reach pre-recession employment levels before the end of 2017. Our population has stagnated and is rapidly aging. Our labor force is shrinking. Wages aren’t keeping pace with the cost of living. Manufacturing jobs are flat or declining. And energy costs constrain our ability to compete.

So what is our next governor going to do?

How is he going to attract thousands of new workers to our state? How is he going to lower Maine’s electricity costs? What strategic investments in infrastructure, programs and technology will he make to transform and reinvigorate our economy and grow new industries?

And, most importantly, how do all those things hang together as a coherent plan to move Maine forward?

These questions are central to the future of our state, the growth of our economy and the prosperity of our neighbors, yet they are largely unanswered by the gubernatorial campaigns.

To the extent the campaigns do address them, it’s frequently with platitudes and generalities that certainly sound appealing but fall well short of real answers, suggesting leadership inadequate to our situation.

To his credit, Cutler has gone the furthest to substantively address these issues to date, releasing a 104-page policy statement titled “A State of Opportunity: A Plan to Build a Healthier, Smarter, Stronger, Younger and More Prosperous Maine.”

But even that plan relies heavily on the sort of sweeping and unspecific language that doesn’t allow Mainers to truly understand and rally around his vision for economic transformation and growth.

And yet growth is the answer to so many of Maine’s ills. Want fewer people utilizing government services? Grow the economy to create new employment opportunities.

Want to raise wages? Attract higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs.

Worried about balancing the state budget or diminishing municipal revenues? More employees and businesses will swell government’s coffers.

There is such a compelling opportunity for a candidate to stake his claim as Maine’s “pro-growth champion” and articulate a commanding vision for moving the state forward, that it’s a wonder no one is doing so.

This gubernatorial contest must be all about transformative growth for Maine and, as voters, we should demand real answers from the candidates.

Because if the most compelling rationale for any of these candidates remains “I’m more likable than the other guys” (Michaud); “I’m not beholden to any party” (Cutler), and “I’m not as crazy as you think” (Le-Page), then we’ve all lost before anyone casts a ballot.

So, candidates, what is your vision for moving Maine in a new direction?

How will the state innovate and evolve under your leadership to attract new capital, people and businesses?

Mainers are eager for that discussion and for leadership equal to our circumstances.

If it doesn’t emerge in this year’s gubernatorial race, we’ll continue to simply muddle along, confined to tepid growth even as our demographic and economic challenges gradually exceed our ability to overcome them.

Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office for VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @CuzziMJ