AUGUSTA — Before rolling out big-money television commercials, the state’s two major political parties are hoping to reach voters online with low-budget Internet ads that pick apart their competition.

On Tuesday, the Maine Democratic Party released an ad taking Republican gubernatorial nominee Paul LePage to task for statements he’s made about education. The ad uses small clips of LePage, mayor of Waterville, talking about the need to “be tough on special education” and pulls quotes from media sources in which he calls for one superintendent per Maine county.

This follows an ad released last week by the Maine Republican Party that criticizes Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell for supporting State House renovations while she was speaker of the House from 1997 to 1998.

“Maine can’t afford any more of Libby Mitchell’s taxpayer-funded spending sprees,” the ad states.

The ads, which provide an early look at the campaign tactics that the parties will employ over the next eight weeks, punctuate an earlier round of sparring.

Democrats accused LePage of ducking the press, and the Republicans criticized Mitchell for dropping out of debates because not all five candidates had been invited.

Party officials say the ads — which are independent of the campaigns — give them an inexpensive way to get their message out. The ads are featured prominently on each party’s Web site and can be found on YouTube.

“I’m a huge fan of these types of things,” said Lance Dutson, a spokesman for the Maine Republican Party and new-media director for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “It helps lay down the narrative of the race.”

Mary-Erin Casale, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party, said the party will continue to release Web ads as the campaign unfolds. The education ad critical of LePage was timed to coincide with the start of the new school year, she said.

“Putting something on the Web is just such a great way to reach people across the state,” she said. “People are getting news and information from the Internet, young people and older people.”

Mitchell and LePage face three independents in the Nov. 2 race for governor: Eliot Cutler of Cape Elizabeth, Shawn Moody of Gorham and Kevin Scott of Andover. To date, those campaigns have not released Internet ads critical of opponents.

Dutson, who produces the GOP ads and provided the voice-over for the one targeting Mitchell, said the Web gives them the freedom to break away from 30- or 60-second television spots. The ads also don’t have to be vetted by major networks.

Admittedly, they reach a far smaller audience than television ads, but if they’re particularly hard-hitting or funny, they can go viral quickly, he said.

One recent example on the national level is “Crazy,” an ad done by the Republican National Committee that highlighted some Democrats who are distancing themselves from President Obama. Another is “Demon Sheep,” a Web ad that targeted Tom Campbell, R-Calif., in the U.S. Senate primary.

“Crazy” is a cartoon that shows Democrats escaping from Air Force One via the emergency slide, a takeoff on the JetBlue flight attendant who made a similar getaway last month. It’s been viewed more than 272,000 times, according to YouTube.

“The RNC ad had unbelievable traffic,” Dutson said. “There are definite examples of success with some of these things, with a pretty minor investment in production.”

And “Demon Sheep,” which runs for more than three minutes, features a creepy-looking “sheep” that is meant to depict Campbell as a “FCINO” — a “fiscal conservative in name only.” It’s gotten nearly 400,000 hits.

Both parties say they’ll continue to use every avenue possible to communicate with voters.

“I produce these things and have for a while,” Dutson said. “It’s way more fun than writing a press release.”

 MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]