Debates are not a perfect way to evaluate candidates, especially when they answer questions with segments from their stump speeches and pounce on their opponents with rehearsed lines. But they are an improvement over the uplifting, soft-focus ads produced by campaigns, and the ominous, often-misleading attack spots put out by their surrogates.

In that light, the upcoming gubernatorial debates, which start Wednesday morning in Portland and continue Thursday in Waterville, are the best chance most voters have to see a true, honest moment from the candidates, and for the candidates to separate themselves from the characterizations offered by their opponents.

When Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler take the stage Wednesday at the Holiday Inn by the Bay, Thursday at Thomas College, or for the three later, televised debates, these will be the only times voters will be able to see the candidates together and contrast their views on the issues facing Maine.

None of those issues is more important than job creation. Maine’s economy is in the midst of a historic transition, as the industries that have traditionally anchored the economy have disappeared or are in decline.

Despite years of warning, Maine is wholly unprepared for this shift. However, after the recent closing of Verso Paper’s mill in Bucksport – the third paper mill to close this year – it is impossible to ignore. More than any other issue that is being discussed in this campaign, the next governor will be judged on how he reacts to this transition.

During the upcoming debates, each candidate needs to present his vision for where Maine’s new jobs will come from, and how his policies and abilities as the state’s chief executive will bring them here. While they’ve all done that to some extent during the campaign, the debates offer a unique opportunity to get past the sound bites of campaign stops and television ads, and get to the substance of the state’s most pressing problem.

On taxes, education, research and development, entrepreneurship and energy, the candidates need to explain where they stand and why it will work for Maine. They need to press their opponents to do the same, and to offer clear evidence.

LePage, Michaud and Cutler each offer different ideas, from different backgrounds and points of view. They each need to make a case for why their ideas should win out, and the debates are the best place to do it.