Call me a glutton for punishment, but I just finished watching, in its entirety, an hourlong televised debate from Maine’s 2010 gubernatorial race.
My first yawn came around the 12-minute mark.
A half-hour in, my attention was split between the talking heads on my computer screen and a sea gull screaming just outside my window.
By the end, I felt like one of those runners bringing up the rear in Saturday’s Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race: proud that I’d hung on to the finish, but exhausted by the effort.
Which brings us to a burning question as the 2014 election kicks into high gear: How many debates does it take to wisely choose Maine’s next governor?
It depends on whom you ask.
Independent Eliot Cutler caused a stir in political circles last week when he called incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and the Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, “cowards” for not appearing onstage with Cutler early and often to debate the great issues of the day.
Cutler’s latest beef: LePage has declined debate invitations in Lewiston and Bangor, which in turn has prompted Michaud to bow out on the grounds that a gubernatorial debate without the Big Guy in attendance is like a circus without any clowns. Or something like that.
Fumed Cutler to the Lewiston Sun Journal (which had hoped to host a debate in Lewiston in September): “This is a dark day for both Maine’s democracy and Maine voters. If a candidate is afraid to compare his ideas and proposals with his opponents or to submit to tough questions from panelists, what kind of leadership can we expect of him in the Blaine House?”
It’s a fair question – with one caveat. As of Friday, the Le- Page, Michaud and Cutler camps had all reportedly agreed to at least four televised debates across Maine in the weeks leading up to the election.
(Cutler’s and Michaud’s spokesmen confirmed that their guys are all in; LePage spokesman Brent Littlefield said in an email only that “just as the Governor did in his successful campaign in 2010 he will participate in debates.”)
The first will be on Oct. 8 at the Portland Community Chamber’s Eggs & Issues breakfast. The second, sponsored by the Maine State Chamber and WCSH in Portland and WLBZ in Bangor, will be on Oct. 15. Then comes an Oct. 20 forum sponsored by the Bangor Daily News and WGME, followed on Oct. 21 by a debate on WMTW that will be featured the same evening on CNN’s “Debate Night in America.”
Those, to be sure, come a tad late for Cutler. Stuck in a distant third place behind Michaud and LePage in the polls, he needs a miracle, and fast, to convince Mainers that he’s worth another look after losing to LePage by less than 2 percent in 2010.
Worse yet for Cutler, 2014 is anything but 2010. That was a free-for-all, with five candidates – none a household name – vying to replace a termed-out Gov. John Baldacci.
This time, the race boils down to two groups: those who want to see LePage re-elected and those who will vote for whichever candidate they think has the best chance of sending the Big Guy packing.
Michaud, according to every statewide poll conducted so far, appears to be that candidate. Cutler doesn’t.
Thus, as the Republican and Democratic juggernauts prepare to drown Maine in political advertising (pity the automobile dealers scrounging for a 30-second TV spot after Labor Day), all Cutler can do is stick to his demand for 16 debates in 16 counties and lambaste as cowards those who decide for obvious reasons to follow a different playbook.
There’s Michaud, who has nothing whatsoever to gain by appearing onstage with Cutler sans LePage. If the prevailing mood among a majority of the electorate is “anyone but Le- Page,” and Michaud has already nudged ahead of LePage in the polls, why in the world would Michaud risk diluting his support by going head-to-head with Cutler?
And there’s LePage, who will rise or fall with the same 38 percent of the electorate who put him in office four years ago and have stuck with him no matter how misguided his policies or outrageous his behavior. When it comes to unscripted face time with his opponents, Camp Le- Page’s strategy begins and ends with the word “minimal.”
(Then again, if Michaud’s loss is ultimately LePage’s gain, it could actually be in the Guv’s interest to accept any and all debate invites and thus elevate Cutler’s profile at Michaud’s expense.)
Talk like this, of course, drives Cutler’s campaign to distraction. They see it as strategy trumping democracy, cynicism steamrolling over the way life should be, all tactic and precious little meaningful talk.
In a perfect world, they’d be right. In a perfect world, voters would listen in rapt attention while all three candidates debate endlessly between now and November and to hell with the TV ads that reduce the most complex of issues to a sound bite.
But in the real world, the eyes glaze over.
Late Friday, Cutler spokeswoman Crystal Canney emailed me a list of 22 forums in 2010 attended by all of that year’s five gubernatorial candidates. So far, she noted, LePage, Michaud and Cutler have appeared together “not once.”
So clearly, they have some catching up to do. But just as clearly, Maine voters don’t need 22 campaign confabs this time around to discern the differences among three highly familiar public figures.
Thus four debates, while nowhere near the marathon of 2010, sounds about right. And for those who would clamor for more, look back and ask yourself, “How many of those 2010 talk fests did I actually watch from start to finish?”
And, for those debates you did fully digest, “What did the candidates actually say that made it worth an hour or so of my time?”
My replay of the Oct. 18, 2010, debate at the University of Southern Maine left me neck-deep in sound bites, gauzy platitudes about the way Maine should be and, when the candidates did dive into the weeds now and then, in utter bewilderment as to what the heck they were talking about.
And my winner then and now, when it came to likability and speaking straight from the heart, was independent Shawn Moody.
“My mother taught us, ‘When you grow up, you can be the tallest tree in the forest or you can spend your time cutting all the other trees down all around you,’ ” said Moody in his opening plea for civility among his opponents. “It’s time to put the chain saws away.”
Moody, bless him then and now, kept me from nodding off several times during my trip down memory lane. Still, his widely acclaimed debate performances garnered him a fourth-place finish with just 5 percent of the vote.
So by all means, let’s have the debates. They’re useful and, on rare occasions, they can even be game-changing.
But more often than not, they’re about as interesting as a squawking sea gull.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: