The campaign for Maine governor has begun.

The five candidates lashed out at each other during the first live televised debate tonight, while also exposing sharp differences on issues such as the state budget, jobs and campaign tactics.

Most evident during the hour-long debate was a three-way battle among Republican Paul LePage, Waterville mayor and front-runner in the polls, the Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell and independent Eliot Cutler.

LePage, following several weeks of controversy about property taxes paid by his wife on homes in Maine and Florida, confronted the issue in his closing statement. He berated people and the press for raising the tax issue.

“The last two weeks have been real rough,” LePage said. “I apologize to the people of Maine for using the ‘B.S.’ word.”

LePage had used the profanity during a recent conference in Portland, in response to a reporter’s question about his wife’s taxes.

He then asked his wife, Ann, to stand in the debate audience.

All of these comments came Saturday night during the first “Great Debate” among Maine’s candidates for governor. It was held at the University of Maine at Augusta. The debate was sponsored by MaineToday Media — the publisher of the Morning Sentinel, Kennebec Journal and The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram — as well as WGME-TV, WGAN, the University of Maine and the university’s Alumni Association.

The debate, attended by more than 250 people at the university’s Jewett Hall, was broadcast live on TV, radio and the MaineToday Media websites.

The candidates pounced on each other from the first question, which was submitted by Mary Dunn of Oakland. It asked how the candidates would balance the budget and what specific program cuts they would make.

Mitchell said she was proud of helping to balance the last state budget through “shared sacrifice.”

Cutler then swiped at Mitchell, saying the budget wasn’t truly balanced because it involved furlough days for state workers and borrowing money across fiscal years.

“We can’t make promises because when we have a $1 billion hole in the budget, you have to stop digging the hole,” Cutler said.

Cutler also challenged LePage, questioning how much it would cost the state to stop taxing pensions, as LePage had proposed recently. Cutler said it would cost about $100 million.

“Paul, there’s no ATM outside the governor’s office,” Cutler said.

Scott offered his plan to offer a voluntary 32-hour workweek to state employees, while Moody pledged to tie his salary to job creation — $1 in salary per new job created — a proposal Scott said made a “mockery” of hard-working Mainers.

Tense exchanges came after the candidates were asked about “honesty and integrity” and the use of negative tactics in the campaign. LePage blasted Mitchell for recent TV commercials which accuse him of choosing nuclear power over the environment.

“I do not attack my opponents; I do not make ridiculous commercials or get under people’s skin,” LePage.

Mitchell stood by the commercial, saying it’s not a personal attack, but was rather meant to reveal policy differences. She later criticized LePage’s plans to ease regulations on business.

“Under that proposal, you can put a nuclear power plant on Popham Beach,” Mitchell said.

In a “lightning round” of rapid-fire questions, the candidates also revealed quick differences and touched on lighter subjects. Asked whether they would consider use furlough days again for state workers, only Mitchell said yes.

Asked if they have any points on their driver’s licenses, all the candidates said no, except LePage, who said he didn’t know.

On an out-of-state politician they admire, both LePage and Cutler chose New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, while Mitchell cited former president Bill Clinton, Moody chose Ronald Reagan and Scott struggled to come up with anyone current, settling on Abraham Lincoln or George Mason.

The next Great Debate is scheduled for Oct. 30 at the Irish Heritage Center in Portland.

Scott Monroe — 861-9239
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