Even though the average person watching TV likely believes ads paid for by partisan groups favoring Gov. John Baldacci and his Republican opponent, Sen. Chandler Woodcock, are designed to win votes for the candidates, the Ethics Commission ruled last week they don’t cross the legal line into blatant advocacy.

And that means the Green Party candidate in the race, Pat LaMarche, and independent Rep. Barbara Merrill won’t get what has been estimated as up to $200,000 in campaign matching funds to help pay for ads of their own.

The vote was 4 to 1, with the two Republicans and two Democrats on the commission voting against the matching funds and the new independent on the board voting in favor.

“We have to have a level playing field for Clean Elections candidates,” said Michael Friedman, who cast the dissenting vote. “I think the ads do cross the line.”

At issue was the so-called “express advocacy” rule in the Clean Elections Act, which says that ads – paid for by outside groups not specifically connected to a campaign – have to ask voters to either vote for or against a certain candidate to trigger matching funds for their publicly funded opponents. Otherwise, they are categorized as issue advertising.

The ads in question were paid for by the Republican Governors Association in favor of Woodcock and by the State Democratic Party for Baldacci. The two ads that raised the most questions were one for Woodcock ending in the words “Woodcock/Governor/New Solutions to Change Maine’s Direction” and one for Baldacci ending with the words: “John Baldacci, the Jobs Governor.”

“If you ask people on the street, in Hannaford or Dunkin’ Donuts…there is no other reasonable meaning,” other than to encourage a vote, argued Blair Bobier, the policy director for the LaMarche campaign, which asked for the ruling. Bobier said his candidate will consider an appeal.

Commission members and even some of the lawyers representing the two major parties agreed the regular TV viewer would assume the commercials were campaign ads encouraging a vote for a given candidate. But because they didn’t contain the so-called “magic words” of “vote” or “for governor,” they did not cross the line.

The law gets tougher 21 days before the election and assumes that any ad clearly depicting or using the name of a given candidate is advocating a vote and therefore triggers matching funds.

Clean Election Act proponents have agued for extending that automatic trigger to 30 days or more, but commission members said it was not the time to change the rules in the middle of an election cycle.

“I’m sure there are lots of ads being developed now,” said commission member Vinton Cassidy. “We’ll create a lot of chaos if we change this now.”

Along with the Republican Governors Association and the State Democratic Party, organizations like the state employees union are making ads on behalf of their candidate.

The commission generally agreed the law needs to be reviewed after this election cycle to see what changes should be recommended to the Legislature. Those changes could end up costing taxpayers more money if they trigger more matching funds.

So far, Woodcock, Merrill and LaMarche have been given $400,000 in public funds for their general election campaigns. Baldacci, who is running a privately funded campaign, has not spent over that amount to trigger more matching funds for them. That has made the role of outside money more critical in this election.

Dan Billings, an attorney for the Woodcock campaign, said he was sympathetic to the LaMarche and Merrill campaigns because they generally had no large, outside organizations running ads on their behalf.

“Nobody’s spending money on behalf of their campaigns,” he said. “There is no Green Party Governors Association.”

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