With fewer than 20 months left to his final term in office, Maine’s brash-talking Republican governor appears to be polishing his rougher edges.

The new more statesman-like Paul LePage is seen by some as a sign that he may be preparing for his next job, or simply as evidence that he kept his pledge to seek “spiritual guidance” after leaving an obscenity-laced voicemail for a lawmaker last year.

LePage also has taken at least five trips to Washington, D.C., since President Trump’s inauguration in January. He has lobbied federal lawmakers and met with members of Trump’s Cabinet, adding to speculation that Maine’s firebrand and often controversial governor may be angling for an appointment to Trump’s staff or laying groundwork for a 2018 challenge to incumbent U.S. Sen. Angus King, a former governor, and an independent who caucuses with Democrats in Congress.

One top Republican operative with ties to Maine said LePage may believe U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, Maine’s senior Republican in Congress, will run for the governor’s office in 2018, which would open the door for LePage to possibly appoint himself to Collins’ seat and the two years remaining on her term.

Other observers of Maine and Washington politics said LePage’s public appearances with Trump administration officials, coupled with a number of interviews on conservative cable news shows, seem to indicate the governor may instead want a spot on Trump’s team.

The change in LePage’s public demeanor in recent weeks has been obvious to lawmakers who have frequent dealings with LePage, as well as the State House reporters who cover the governor’s office. It has left some wondering if LePage is simply thinking about his legacy, and wanting to focus it on policy changes he’s achieved instead of a history of outlandish comments, many of which have drawn national attention.

Lawmakers who deal with LePage out of the public eye said the governor’s fuse is longer these days and he’s less explosive in private meetings or negotiations.

The change has been clear in public appearances, too.

BREAKING FROM PAST PRACTICES

While known for aiming insults and hostility at reporters and legislators, LePage has displayed a more civil approach in public toward both the Maine media and some of his Democratic political rivals. The governor has in the past gone long stretches of time without directly speaking to reporters or answering questions, instead doing all of his speaking through talk radio interviews, prepared statements or town hall appearances where reporters have not been able to ask questions.

However, during a seven-day period in April, LePage held three different news conferences on policy priorities: high energy costs, taxes and public school funding. His exchanges with reporters were markedly more civil, with LePage answering questions and uncharacteristically refraining from insults, attacks or criticisms.

The governor hasn’t entirely opened up. Recent requests for one-on-one interviews with LePage have been immediately denied by his communications director, Peter Steele. “Get a job with Fox News or some other outlet, and we’ll consider it,” Steele wrote in one dismissive reply to an interview request.

LePage’s State House staff also has resisted giving full details of LePage’s recent travels to Washington.

At least three legal request for copies of LePage’s travel expenses and details of his schedule, public documents under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, have not been fulfilled by LePage’s staff, which has said they are looking for documents “responsive” to the requests. When asked for a status update on the public records requests, Steele said, “Get in line behind everybody else.”

However, on at least two occasions in April and May, news releases from LePage’s staff broke from that practice and detailed some of his meetings or appearances in D.C. The release of even limited details of LePage’s daily calendar is a shift in practice for the governor, who has for nearly six years resisted giving the press regular updates on where he will be or what he is working on.

Also, the governor’s official social media accounts have come to life during the recent trips in a flurry of tweets and Facebook posts showing LePage either appearing on Fox News or in grip-and-grin photo opportunities with key Trump administration officials or Republican congressmen. One tweet showed him at a signing ceremony with Trump as the president ordered a review of decisions made by previous presidents to protect lands within national monuments.

‘SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE,’ PHYSICAL CHANGES

The change in tone and temperament is undeniable, according to some Republican lawmakers, but they warn that it’s a mistake to read too much into it. Some pointed to LePage’s promise to lawmakers last summer that he was going to seek “spiritual guidance” from his wife and family after he left an obscenity-laced voicemail for state Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, that went public and then drew nearly 10 days of national media attention to LePage and the state.

The incident prompted discussions among State House leaders about a special legislative session aimed at censuring LePage. Some Republican lawmakers even speculated LePage may have had a drinking problem. Ultimately talks between Democrats and Republicans over the issue broke down, with Democrats pushing for an impeachment trial and Republicans wanting only to formally reprimand LePage.

Not long after vowing to seek guidance to address his behavior and outbursts, the governor also underwent bariatric surgery in September of 2016. The procedure allowed him to shed over 50 pounds – dramatically changing LePage’s outward appearance, as well.

LePage’s weight loss even drew a comment from Trump when he introduced LePage during one of the governor’s recent visits to Washington. “Governor LePage of Maine, who, by the way, has lost a lot of weight,” Trump said. “I knew him when he was heavy and now I know him when he was thin and I like him both ways, OK?”

Some lawmakers said LePage is simply feeling healthier and better about himself, and that was being reflected in his more temperate tone toward those he may have clashed with in the past.

“I think what we are seeing is the governor is keeping his promise that he made to us last year,” said Senate Assistant Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Newport.

Cushing wouldn’t speculate on what he thought LePage might be positioning himself for, if anything.

RECEPTIVE EARS IN WASHINGTON

Democrats and LePage’s other critics note that LePage has still found ways to keep himself in the headlines with controversial words or actions.

In January, he got widespread attention for suggesting black people should thank white people for fighting in the Civil War. Last week, he sued Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills for alleged abuse of power. And in congressional testimony last week about the Katahdin Woods and Waters Monument near Millinocket, LePage dismissed the role tourism plays in much of the state, saying tourists mostly visit coastal Maine and don’t tend to venture inland to what LePage described as the “mosquito area.”

The new tone doesn’t mean the governor is sticking closer to the facts, said David Farmer, a Democratic political operative and campaign consultant who disputed LePage’s comments about the value of the monument.

Farmer said the number of times LePage was popping up on Fox News seemed to be a sign that the governor is auditioning for a role with Trump. “Donald Trump, himself, watches a lot of television,” Farmer said, “and he likes people who put on a good show.”

However, LePage’s top political adviser said the governor’s higher profile and access in Washington is about policy, not politics.

Brent Littlefield, a consultant based in the nation’s capital, said the amount of time LePage was spending in Washington is a result of a more receptive audience in the Trump administration and in Congress.

“He’s always looking to do more and what he’s found, obviously, is a receptive audience in Washington for some of the reforms that have worked well in Maine,” Littlefield said.

One example of that, Littlefield said, was a conversation LePage had with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue about changes Maine has made to its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, including new work or volunteer requirements for recipients. LePage has also asked the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federally funded program also known as SNAP or food stamps, to allow Maine to ban the purchase of sugary foods or drinks, including soda, with the benefits.

“The previous administration was pushing back on the LePage administration. Now you have folks that might be willing to talk about what the actual benefits might be,” Littlefield said.

He said the conversations LePage was having in Washington were largely about policy. “And a perfect example is this new health care bill that was passed in the House. (It’s) actually based on a Maine model,” Littlefield said. “The governor is advocating for the policies he has believed in and I think he appreciates a willingness for people who are willing to listen and have a constructive dialogue.”

PERSPECTIVES FROM FORMER GOVERNORS

On Friday, Trump appeared to reward LePage’s outreach efforts by adding the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument to a list of national monuments that will be reviewed by the administration.

When pressed about LePage’s demeanor, Littlefield declined to comment except to say: “You are making the observation. I’ll let you make the observation, you know.”

Former Maine Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat and LePage’s predecessor in the office, said he noticed LePage’s toned-down public demeanor and his new focus on Washington, although he wouldn’t speculate on what it all means.

Baldacci, who also served in Congress, said as every governor’s final term runs down, there are a lot of things being tossed about and thought about by the person in that office. During his final months as governor, Baldacci said he had many conversations with his wife and family about the future while also finding various community organizations and boards he wanted to volunteer his time to. He said he expects LePage, too, has similar aspirations to continue some public service, even if it’s not another elected office.

Baldacci said one tip about leaving office from former Republican Gov. John McKernan was very practical. A soon-to-be-former governor needs to develop some humility.

“Don’t get in on the passenger side of the automobile and expect it to go anywhere” was McKernan’s advice, Baldacci said. “You are going to have to learn to drive for yourself. You are not going to have the state police to drive you around anymore.”

Baldacci said there was a feeling you need to have the “air let out” as you prepare to leave the state’s highest elected office.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or:

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