Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler covered a range of topics in the first debate of the 2014 gubernatorial campaign Wednesday, sparring over faculty and program cuts at the University of Southern Maine and the December closure of the Verso Paper mill in Bucksport.

No crippling blows were delivered, however, with each candidate scoring points that are likely to please their supporters in the closely contested race.

The second of five debates before the Nov. 4 election, sponsored by the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, is scheduled for Thursday morning at Thomas College in Waterville.

Wednesday’s forum drew a crowd of about 670 paid attendees at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland. A recent poll done by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram indicated that Michaud has a slight lead over LePage, but within the margin of error, and that Cutler is running a distant third.

Before the debate started, moderator Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber, called for a quiet room. The audience immediately complied.

The exchanges among the candidates were pointed, but relatively civil. The format limited rebuttal time, perhaps setting the stage for more vigorous arguments in the televised contests next week.

Michaud and LePage criticized each other repeatedly. LePage, the most animated of the three, was alternately forceful in defending his record and self-deprecating in acknowledging his history of impolitic comments. As Cutler and Michaud took turns attacking his record, LePage leaned back, brought his hands to his chest, shook his head and smiled at his supporters in the crowd.

On two occasions, LePage high-fived Cutler, whose candidacy is dividing the anti-LePage vote, stoking the Democratic narrative that Cutler’s participation only serves to help LePage. The image, captured by the Portland Press Herald, ricocheted on social media, with Democrats characterizing the LePage-Cutler relationship as a “bromance.”

Cutler said he was surprised by LePage’s gestures.

Michaud consistently attacked LePage’s record. He neither spoke directly to Cutler, nor responded to the attorney’s attacks. The tactic reflected his campaign’s insistence that the race is a two-man contest and that the election is a referendum on the governor.

The tone was set early. Hall, the moderator, asked the candidates to return for another event the day after the election. Cutler said he would. LePage wavered, saying he had travel plans. Michaud joked that he would help the governor leave.

“That’s good,” said LePage, clasping his hands and laughing.

Cutler’s remarks were detailed, beginning with the question about the USM cuts and changes confronting the entire University of Maine System. He said the state should merge the university and community college systems to shed duplicative administrative costs.

“We have two CEOs, two boards of trustees, two of this, two of that,” he said. “We need to do a better job. It’s not Noah’s ark.”

LePage wasn’t convinced that the independent’s plan was a good one.

“(The systems) have different missions. I don’t like to see the missions corrupted,” LePage said.

Michaud said the USM reorganization announced this week was the result of a “perfect storm” of stagnant funding and declining enrollment. He said his Maine Made plan, which would make the second year of college tuition-free, would help enrollment.

Denise Vachon, executive director of The Park Danforth, a senior housing project in Portland, thought all three candidates performed well, and she remains undecided.

“Depending on the question, I found myself resonating with each of them,” Vachon said. “I don’t think there was a slam dunk.”

The candidates offered a range of opinions on the Verso closure. Michaud said that declining demand and internal corporate competition had hamstrung the paper mill. He also blamed LePage for not working with the other New England governors to expand the capacity of natural gas pipelines supplying Maine, which was a factor in the closure.

LePage said the state’s regulatory environment was partially responsible for the plight of the paper industry.

He addressed Cutler’s proposal to have the state buy the energy plant at Verso, saying he’d better “stand in line” because five other companies have expressed an interest in purchasing it. The governor also criticized Michaud for voting in Congress to delay natural gas expansion.

Michaud, a former worker at the Millinocket paper mill, said the issues affecting the paper industry were global and complex, but said it is still viable.

“Not only are these companies competing with other companies, they’re competing within the same corporation for capital dollars,” he said.

Cutler hit both of his rivals, saying neither had done anything to plan for the closure. He urged the governor not to pursue a deal like the one that LePage endorsed for the now-shuttered mill in East Millinocket.

“Please don’t do another Cate Street deal,” he said, referring to the investment firm that secured a taxpayer-backed loan and tax credits to run Great Northern Paper Co.

The candidates hit a number of other hot-button issues, including raising the minimum wage, public education and the expansion of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act. Michaud also criticized LePage for a 2011 tax cut package that wasn’t entirely paid for and ultimately led to the governor’s 2012 plan to cut municipal revenue sharing. The revenue-sharing cut was criticized by Democrats for shifting the cost of paying for the 2011 tax cuts from the state to local property taxpayers.

Cutler agreed that the state should honor its agreement with municipalities and should fund 55 percent of local education costs.

“The difference between you and me is that I’ve figured out how to pay for it,” he said to Michaud, referring to his tax reform proposal that makes an array of changes in sales taxes and exemptions.

LePage defended his 2011 tax cut, citing its broad bipartisan support. He also called municipal revenue sharing “code for ‘we don’t want to work with our neighbors,’ ” a reference to towns’ resistance to consolidating services. He advocated for stronger county government.

“Local control is a mainstay in Maine and everybody loves it,” LePage said. “But local control is expensive. We can keep it and that’s fine … but the state of Maine should not be tapped to pay for it.”

During closing statements, Cutler appealed to the audience to choose a different path than the one his party rivals were offering.

“We need a vision and a plan and a strategy for the 21st century,” he said. “Prosperity in Maine isn’t going to be a coincidence and it’s not going to be an accident. We have to plan and we have to make it happen.”

He said the election would decide whether the next four years would be a repeat of the previous “embarrassing, frustrating gridlock” that dominated LePage’s first term, or a repeat of the Democratic rule that triggered “an 11-year slide in Maine’s economic activity.”

In his closing, LePage first slammed the “liberals” leading in Augusta, making a distinction between them and “some good Democrats.”

“They talk and talk and talk,” he said. “That’s all they’ve done for the last four years.

“I think my actions speak louder than my words,” he said. “Despite what you hear from my opponents, there are some good things happening in Maine.”

LePage then addressed his reputation for impolitic comments. Referring to one of the ads that said he was an embarrassment, LePage joked that most of the controversial things it recounted occurred during his first two years in office.

“Even a Frenchman can be taught to cool down,” LePage said emphatically, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Michaud addressed why he was running, citing LePage as a primary reason.

“People are fed up, of the divisiveness and the failed policy of this administration,” Michaud said.

“We have to forge a new future in the state of Maine,” he said. “There’s one person holding us back, and that’s Gov. LePage. He has no plan – he never had a plan – of how to move forward.”

After the debate, LePage said something to Michaud as he shook his hand.

Asked what the governor said, Michaud replied, “That’s between me and the governor – for now.”

Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.