AUGUSTA — Republican Gov. Paul LePage didn’t want to debate U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. And the Democrat wasn’t interested in squaring off against independent Eliot Cutler if LePage wasn’t there.

For a while, it looked like there might not be any debates before voters head to the polls next month to pick a governor. But all three candidates have finally agreed to five – with the first one this week.

There’s a lot at stake in a race that many believe will come down to a few percentage points.

“The debates have the potential to be pretty significant here,” because there appears to be a relatively large group of “swayable” voters with just four weeks until Election Day, said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine.

The candidate with perhaps the most on the line as the three make their first appearance together in Portland on Wednesday is Cutler, who’s running a distant third in his second gubernatorial attempt and has been telling Mainers to “wait for debates.”

The Cape Elizabeth attorney and businessman must prove to the anti-LePage crowd that a vote for him won’t be a waste and convince them to hold off casting their ballots early to see what happens between now and Nov. 4, said University of Southern Maine political science professor Ron Schmidt.


In the most recent poll from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Cutler drew just 12 percent of likely voters compared to 40 percent for six-term Democratic congressman Michaud and 38 percent for LePage. The numbers have moved little throughout the heated campaign.

The outspoken governor raised questions last month about whether there would be any debates at all when he said he didn’t want to appear alongside Michaud because he disagrees with an ad from an outside group supporting the Democrat. LePage eventually agreed to debates to make sure Mainers “get the record straight.”

Michaud, whose campaign has been pushing the narrative that it’s a two-way race between him and LePage, had said previously that he wouldn’t debate Cutler one-on-one, but said last week that he would participate even if the governor was a no-show.

Michaud and LePage have a different – but equally important – task to accomplish in the debates than Cutler, observers say.

While debates don’t often cause voters who’ve already made up their minds to switch their support, Michaud and LePage’s performances will be vital in energizing their base and getting their supporters to the polls next month, Schmidt said.

“When you have a race as close as this one, that kind of spirit in the base is most important,” he said.

LePage will be looking to mobilize those like 71-year-old unenrolled voter Frank Giambrone, who supported the governor in 2010 and plans to again, citing his support for LePage’s policy that municipalities not give welfare benefits to immigrants who can’t prove they are living in the U.S. legally.

The Gardiner resident said he doesn’t think that he’ll be swayed to vote for someone else by watching the debates, but is still interested to hear the candidates lay out their positions on some of the biggest issues facing Maine.

“I’d like to see them really come out and say exactly what they are for and what they’re not for,” he said. “I know it’s an oxymoron to say a politician should be honest, but it would be a nice change.”

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