LEWISTON – Even though Republican Paul LePage had canceled a day earlier, his name came up again and again Thursday night during a gubernatorial forum at Bates College.

Four of the five candidates for governor on next week’s ballot talked about the state’s business climate, education funding and jobs. Democrat Libby Mitchell and independent Eliot Cutler clashed over their experience and qualifications, while independents Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott touted their business experience.

The debate’s format allowed the candidates to ask several questions of each other.

Cutler sharply criticized LePage for not attending, asking Scott what he thinks when “one of the leading candidates skips out on one of the last, most important interviews of the entire process?”

LePage, the front-runner in the polls, said late Wednesday that he was withdrawing from the debate because he would rather meet with voters at campaign stops.

Scott said it is up to voters to decide whether that matters. “Mr. LePage has set his own agenda,” he said.

Later, Scott asked Moody what two things qualify LePage to be governor. Moody cited the Republican’s business background and “connecting people back to politics.”

“It seems sincere and genuine,” Moody said.

About 250 people gathered in the Olin Concert Hall at Bates College for the debate, which was sponsored by the Maine Public Broadcasting Network and broadcast live on radio and television statewide.

It was moderated by MPBN’s Jennifer Rooks, and questioned were asked by MPBN reporters Susan Sharon and A.J. Higgins.

Just five days before the Nov. 2 election, the candidates repeated their plans to get the state’s economy back on track.

Asked about the recent Forbes.com ranking putting Maine last in business climate, all of candidates said the state needs to do a better job.

Cutler said he would change regulatory conditions for businesses to grow by “tearing down the wall of no.”

“We shouldn’t be stupid about how we implement regulations,” he said.

Mitchell said she was “bemused” by the ranking — saying New Jersey beat Maine on “quality of life” because of its average temperature.

“We still must reduce the income tax burden to bring capital into the state,” she said.

Asked about funding for education in the face of a big budget shortfall, all four candidates said the state is unlikely to meet its 55 percent funding commitment, as in years past, but they would do the best they could.

Scott said he wouldn’t speculate on what cuts the state could make to bolster education funding.

“Let’s focus on solutions and not make irresponsible statements about what budget we’re going to tap into,” he said.

Moody said the state could take an average of the last five years to come up with an education funding figure. “It’s realistic, given the hard times we’re facing,” he said.

They also were asked what they would say to a 50-year-old who lost a job and still had a mortgage and other expenses.

Cutler said adults need help to learn new skills, citing vocational training and adult education.

Mitchell noted that she received her law degree five years ago, after going back to school, and said she would focus on new job training and pointing people to career services.

Scott repeated his plan to have school districts buy all local food, produced by a new generation of year-ground agriculture facilities.

Moody said people want to work, and “restoring business confidence is key.”

“If we get a business person in the Blaine House, it’s going to fuel business confidence,” Moody said.

The candidates got feisty at times when they had a chance to ask each other questions.

Cutler asked Mitchell whether she thinks “voters really understand what’s at stake” if LePage if elected.

Mitchell said she thinks voters understand the issues, and she criticized Cutler’s proposals as involving CEOs and other big-wigs, not citizens. “That’s not my values,” she said.

Mitchell told Moody she has “come to respect you as much as anyone” and asked what state regulation he would change to help businesses. Moody cited expensive permit fees for expanding a business, saying it costs his Moody’s Collision Centers.

“It drives the small business folks out of business,” he said.

During a “lightning round” of questions, the candidates agreed, with some caveats, that solar panels should go on the Blaine House. Cutler drew laughter when he referenced his time working for the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

“I put them on the White House and Ronald Reagan took them off,” he said.

Asked who they would vote for if not themselves, only Mitchell named one of her four opponents: Moody.

A blushing Moody gently declined to return the favor.