FARMINGTON – “Maine’s voters are moderate” is a universally accepted generalization, but it is not strictly true — if a February Gallup poll is accurate. It categorizes 36 percent of Maine’s voters as conservative and 23 percent as liberals. Only 38 percent of voters say they are “moderates,” while 59 percent come down on the left or the right. Around 3 percent evade any category.

It is true, however, that a candidate must attract moderate votes to win. In rough, round numbers, a Republican must hold a conservative base and pull in little more than a third of the moderate voters, while his Democratic rival’s liberal base must be enhanced by nearly 70 percent of them.

These numbers explain why no Democrat ever runs for statewide office as a liberal, but always as a moderate or pragmatist. For the same reason no Democratic candidate, operative or media ally can ever recognize the Republican candidate as a “conservative.”

He or she must be identified as a radical far-right extremist. The more liberal or leftish the Democratic candidate, the more important it becomes to hang the extremist label on his or her GOP rival. It scares the moderates into voting for him or her.

The fact that the Gallup Poll says 23 percent of registered Democrats nationally are “conservative” and only 2 percent of registered Republicans as “liberal” (I have no statistics for Maine) makes it all the more imperative to follow this tactic. For most voters, “liberal” has more negative connotations than “conservative.”

These obvious calculations are complicated in 2010 by two independent candidates with personal fortunes adequate to finance credible campaigns without support from the major parties. Shawn Moody has said that he would have supported Peter Mills or Steve Abbott if they had won the GOP primary. Eliot Cutler has left the Democratic Party because he believes that it has become a captive of special interests. Both aim to build a base among the moderates.

It makes electoral sense for the Moody, Cutler and Libby Mitchell camps to represent Paul LePage as a far-right extremist, although his record as mayor of Waterville will be no use to them, unless tax-cutting by means of efficient management can be called extremist.

It helps that the media has generally described the mayor as the “most conservative” Republican in the June primary. Actually that’s a little sloppy, since there’s no obvious reason to consider Bill Beardsley as any less conservative.

It is, nevertheless, fair to call the Republican candidate conservative, but not so easy to explain how much more conservative he is than his other five former rivals. All the GOP candidates offered similar diagnoses of Maine’s ills — taxes too high, irrational and burdensome regulations, a dysfunctional welfare system, a dismal business climate, poor government management.

The solutions they proposed were generally compatible. All six endorsed Paul LePage at a unity rally after the election.

The “assassination by classification” strategy will rest primarily on the guilt-by-association method. There are two associations we will be hearing a lot about, the tea parties and the religious right.

The religious right ploy will be a little awkward. Paul LePage was raised Catholic and attends the Roman Catholic Church. Condemning him for his religious views comes close to putting up a “No French Allowed” sign in front of the Blaine House. Not a good idea.

His opponents will get some mileage from the Republican’s answer to question about “creationism” in a debate.

He did not propose this as a vital educational reform. He did not advocate removing evolution from the curriculum. He merely said that he would not oppose a local school board including such a component.

It seems unlikely that any Maine school board would actually include a “creationist” or “intelligent design” curriculum component, but the slightest expression of doubt about the theory of evolution is regarded as heresy by quite a lot of people, so we can expect to hear a lot about this non-issue.

I saw a lot of LePage support at the tea party rallies I’ve attended, and I’ve heard LePage address a couple of them.

His speeches emphasized fidelity to the limits placed on government power by the Constitution. In my experience, that is a theme that unites nearly all those who show up for these events.

Few voters will see that as an extreme position, but a tea party is open to all comers. Any oddball can ride in on his personal hobby horse.

It is predictable that these few oddballs will be useful to those with a mission to label Paul LePage as too extreme for Maine.


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