AUGUSTA – Maine’s three candidates for governor wasted little time in attacking each other during the first televised debate of the 2014 race for the Blaine House.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage went after Democrat Mike Michaud for voting with his party 93 percent of the time while in Congress.

Michaud criticized the incumbent for his refusal to expand Medicaid to more low-income Mainers.

And independent Eliot Cutler chastised both men – Michaud for his late evolution on reproductive rights and LePage for brokering a bad deal with Cate Street Capital, which couldn’t save Great Northern Paper Co. and its Millinocket area mills from bankruptcy.

Wednesday was the third debate featuring all three candidates, but it was the first held in prime time and the first to be broadcast live statewide on television, via WCSH-6 in Portland and WLBZ-2 in Bangor.

Pat Callaghan, a longtime anchor with WCSH-6, served as moderator and worked diligently to keep the debate on track and moving.

Unlike two morning debates last week, Wednesday’s event featured significantly more give and take among the candidates.

At one point, Callaghan gave them a chance to ask one opponent a question.

LePage’s question was to both Michaud and Cutler and had to do with reports that the Democratic Party first approached Cutler to be its nominee.

“Is that true?” LePage asked Cutler.

“Yes,” Cutler replied.

LePage, turning to Michaud, then asked, “How do you feel about that?”

“Well, I’m the Democratic nominee,” Michaud said. “They chose me.”

The debate, held at the Augusta Civic Center during the Maine State Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner and awards ceremony, remained civil but featured a number of testy exchanges.

Early in the program, Callaghan asked Michaud why he refuses to acknowledge Cutler in the race. Michaud, in his answer, avoided acknowledging the independent, prompting Callaghan to press.

“I have experience, he doesn’t have a voting record,” Michaud finally said of Cutler before quickly shifting his focus back to LePage.

When it was Cutler’s turn to speak, he told Michaud, “I’m glad I don’t have your voting record,” which prompted LePage to exclaim, “Me, too,” and clap his hands.

Michaud told the crowd at the outset, “I’m not the most entertaining orator. I’m more of a listener and a problem solver.”

But the Democrat was forced to respond often because he was besieged by both LePage and Cutler.

Responding to criticism that he cast a number of votes earlier in his career against equal rights for gays and lesbians and against reproductive rights, Michaud acknowledged that he has indeed changed his position since he first was elected as a 24-year-old state representative.

“Yes, I have evolved, but what’s wrong with that?” he said.

Cutler didn’t relent.

“I’m glad Mike has evolved, but he’s not being honest. He cast those votes when he was 24, 34, 44, and even 54. It took him 30 years (to evolve),” he said, turning to Michaud. “You had to go to Washington to find out you were wrong?”

The candidates continued the ongoing debate about expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, something LePage has vehemently opposed and Michaud and Cutler have supported.

Cutler said Maine’s hospitals want the expansion – the same hospitals that were owed state Medicaid reimbursements that LePage paid off by leveraging future liquor sales. He pointed out that those same hospitals are now back in the red, and “you don’t have another liquor business to sell.”

LePage said expansion will not help as many people as the Democrats have predicted and that the better option for low-income individuals is to purchase insurance from the federal exchange because they will get better care.

There were several back-and-forth exchanges in which one candidate sought to correct a point made by another. In some cases, it was difficult to keep up with the many numbers and claims being made.

The audience of about 600 business leaders was mostly subdued, although there were a few laughable moments.

Early in the debate, as Michaud and LePage argued a point, Cutler jumped in and said, “Do you really want four or eight more years of this? Really?”

Later in the debate, the candidates were asked what their top priority would be for creating jobs. The answers differed greatly.

“The No. 1 priority, energy. No. 2, right to work,” said LePage, referring to legislation that would weaken unions by making dues optional.

Michaud said his No. 1 priority would be to “fire Gov. LePage.”

“He’s the biggest detriment to small-business growth,” Michaud said.

Cutler said his top priority, “without question, is education.”

“I want every kid in the state to be trained and educated so that he or she can have a job, or can take a job in a new or expanding business. We’re not doing enough today,” he said.

A lightning round of questions just before the candidates’ closing statements offered another glimpse of the differences between the three.

On legalizing marijuana, Cutler said he could see it happening but was not ready to support it. LePage said he would support it, but only through a referendum. Michaud said he has concerns, but did not elaborate.

Asked whether they would support mandatory sick time for employees, LePage said no, Michaud said yes and Cutler said only as part of an insurance plan.

On universal background checks for gun sales, LePage said no and Michaud and Cutler both said yes.

On whether Maine should pursue nuclear energy, Michaud and Cutler said no, while LePage said yes.

In a lighter moment, each candidate was asked whom he would vote for, after himself, if Maine had ranked-choice voting.

None of the candidates answered directly.

Michaud said, “Thank God we don’t.”

Said Cutler, “I’d leave it blank.”

And LePage said, “My wife.”

In closing statements, the three made one final pitch to the chamber audience and those watching at home.

Cutler stressed his independence and the quality of his ideas.

“I’m offering you a better way,” he said. “Not left, not right, but forward.”

LePage said the election offers voters a clear choice between “two liberals and one conservative.”

“We can go backward or continue to go forward and reinvent tomorrow,” he said.

Michaud also sought to offer voters a clear choice: “The same divisive partisanship of our current governor,” he said. “Or you have a choice to move Maine forward in a positive way focusing on our strengths.”

The candidates are scheduled to participate in two more debates, on Monday and Tuesday. Both will be televised.

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