AUGUSTA – They’ve spoken to lobstermen, farmers, doctors, business owners and superintendents.

They’ve debated in Presque Isle, Bangor, Portland and Augusta.

In all, there have been more than 40 debates or forums sponsored by special-interest groups or the media in this campaign season, pushing the candidates to bone up on biotechnology, disability rights, health insurance and land use regulations.

For all five candidates for governor on Tuesday’s ballot, it’s been a grueling slog across the state — mostly between Portland and Bangor — with chamber breakfasts, Rotary lunches and nighttime live, televised debates.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Ted O’Meara, campaign manager for independent Eliot Cutler.

O’Meara, who has worked on campaigns in Maine since 1978, said the absence of an incumbent opened the floodgates for a large number of joint public events with the candidates. In a more typical year, an incumbent works to limit the exposure of opponents, which keeps the number of public appearances down, he said.

Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said it has been helpful to the public to have forums where candidates are asked questions on specific topics.

“That has been very useful for people interested in one thing, beyond what they’ve posted online,” he said. “There have been so many of them, it’s a good sign of Maine’s political culture.”

In addition to the debates and forums, the campaigns filled out an estimated 50 questionnaires from various special-interest groups. Spokesmen for the campaigns said they were time-consuming and required detailed answers, another task that had to be completed by campaign staff and candidates.

“There have been many questionnaires, and we’ve tried to do as many as we can, and we think we’ve been fairly responsive,” said Dan Demeritt, press secretary for Republican Paul LePage.

The debate season started Aug. 13, when the Island Institute held a forum in Rockland attended by four of the five candidates: Cutler, Democrat Libby Mitchell, independent Shawn Moody and independent Kevin Scott. LePage did not attend, citing a scheduling conflict.

It was the first of an estimated dozen forums or debates that LePage would miss throughout the campaign.

In late August, Mitchell pulled out of two debates — one held in Bangor and another in Brewer — because not all of the five candidates had been invited. Mitchell said she felt it was unfair to exclude any candidate who had qualified for the ballot.

That drew a sharp rebuke from one of the event’s sponsors, David Milan of the Bangor Region Development Alliance.

“I think Libby Mitchell’s withdrawal at the 11th hour was extremely insulting to the people of the Bangor region,” he told the Bangor Daily News.

After missing the Brewer forum sponsored by the Maine Forest Products Council and related groups, all other groups decided to invite all the candidates, said David Loughran, spokesman for Mitchell.

The sheer number of forums and debates made it hard for those running the campaigns to get their candidates to all corners of the state, he said.

The LePage campaign released information Thursday that showed LePage had already attended 28 forums and debates, and he participated in a live televised debate Saturday sponsored by WGME-TV and MaineToday Media.

The Maine Democratic Party — and competing campaigns — have criticized LePage for skipping several events.

Demeritt said part of the reason LePage missed events was because, as a privately financed candidate, he had to do more than 60 fundraisers. Mitchell is using public funds through the state’s Clean Election program, and Cutler is largely financing his own campaign.

“As a traditionally financed candidate with a $750 limit, it takes a long time to raise the money necessary to wage a statewide campaign,” Demeritt said.

Also, the campaign felt that some groups had already made up their minds about whom they would support, so LePage wouldn’t have picked up any votes by attending.

“It’s not a question of comfort,” he said. “It’s a question of where our message has a chance to change the most minds. We’re free to make those kinds of decisions. It’s Paul’s campaign.”

LePage also declined to be interviewed by the endorsement boards for MaineToday Media — which owns The Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel — and the Bangor Daily News.

“Paul LePage isn’t a big endorsement guy,” Demeritt said. “Paul LePage prefers to talk to voters directly and let them make up their own minds.”

Recently, he has missed forums sponsored by the Maine Municipal Association, the American Lung Association of Maine, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and a live, televised debate on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

Melcher said he doesn’t take at face value the reasons offered by Mitchell or LePage for skipping forums.

“It seems both had some sort of political gain in mind,” he said.

In Mitchell’s case, she needed the two other independents on the stage with her to “siphon off votes,” he said. And it’s typical for those leading in the polls, as LePage has, to be more careful about public appearances.

O’Meara said LePage’s strategy in the last month “is to say as little as possible. To not put him in any place where he could make a misstep.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be reached at 620-7015 or at:

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