The three candidates for governor made their closing arguments to Maine voters in the final televised debate Tuesday, sparring over the future of Maine’s education system, economy and welfare programs.

The candidates have pitched the election as a turning point for the state, and each said he is uniquely suited to take the state’s top job.

Speaking at the Auburn studio of WMTW-TV, the candidates faced a panel of questioners, and although there were fewer sharp exchanges than in Monday’s televised debate, each staked out a vision for Maine’s future.

“I believe Maine is at a crossroads,” Republican Gov. Paul LePage said. “We can continue on a road of 40 years of liberal rhetoric and policies that clearly didn’t work, or we can continue what we started.”

But Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who is in a tight race with LePage, said voters on Nov. 4 have a chance to end the partisan atmosphere.

“You can either chose the partisan, divisive nature of the last four years or you can chose a new path forward,” Michaud said.

Independent candidate Eliot Cutler, who is trailing in the polls, tried to rise above the bickering between his opponents. “The argument about who says what is a lot less important than figuring out how to run Maine in the future,” he said.

The debate was more subdued than the freewheeling event on Monday, but the candidates assailed each other early, with Michaud using his first response to take a jab at the governor for stating in the last debate that people earning $100,000 a year are “not that rich.”

“Tell that to a logger in Jackman or Fort Kent, who is barely getting by making $32,000 a year with no health insurance,” Michaud said. “Governor, you’ve struggled, as you mentioned in your opening remarks, but clearly you’ve forgotten where you came from.”

Referring to the statement later, LePage reiterated his belief that $100,000 does not mean wealthy, but he also clarified his interpretation to apply that figure to a household with two adults raising two college students and paying for their education.

Michaud, meanwhile, sidestepped a question about how he would pay for increasing the state’s contribution to local education costs to 55 percent, part of his broad plan for improving Maine.

“It’s my goal to move toward the 55 percent,” Michaud said, without specifying where he would get the money. “I know we’re not going to get there overnight, but we have to start making an effort to get there.”

Cutler jumped in.

“I’d be happy to yield my time if you’d like to try to answer the question,” he said.

On the economy, LePage reiterated his position that burdensome government regulations in Maine have for years stifled big business, and that the state’s high cost of energy has driven away employers, saying there is an “energy crisis” in New England that Michaud has refused to address.

“Regulations got so bad that the tier one companies threw up their and hands and left the state of Maine,” he said.

Cutler’s vision for the state economy started with education. “I want to talk about your children,” he said.

“Our problem right now in Maine is we’re not educating a workforce that is going to be ready to take on the challenges of the 21st century,” Cutler said.

Cutler also took aim at Michaud’s often-repeated “Maine Made” plan, which the congressman says will cost $35 million, but Cutler said would be about $320 million. Cutler said Michaud has failed to explain how we will pay for it.

“I’ve suggested that he’s going to propose some kind of tax, and he’s keeping it a secret,” Cutler said.

LePage, meanwhile, outlined his plan for improving education by weakening the teacher’s unions, which he said Michaud is “married to.”

“Mike Michaud has been bought and paid for by unions,” LePage said later.

On reducing the cost of higher education, LePage suggested selling student loans to employers in exchange for a tax credit if they employed graduates.

Tension between LePage and Michaud also arose when it came to questions about how the state’s next governor will help older Mainers handle the cost of retirement and aging. Michaud pointed to cuts in the Meals on Wheels program under LePage’s administration, and said he’s worked to improve the MaineCare rides program, which provides transportation to and from medical appointments for low-income people and seniors.

LePage at first refused to address Michaud.

“This man doesn’t know what honesty is,” LePage said. “That’s all I can tell you.”

Michaud hit back.

“What the governor says is anything, whether it’s factual or not.”

Cutler, who has lagged in the polls, also faced questions about why he wasn’t doing better in the race, and if the LePage campaign’s tacit support of his own campaign has made him a political pawn.

“I would suggest, and he would agree, we don’t have a bromance,” Cutler said. He also addressed his narrow loss to LePage in 2010, and his hope for Nov. 4 this year.

“If people in Maine will vote for the person who they think will be the best governor, there won’t be any question whatsoever about a bromance or missing another chance,” he said.

In later rounds, there were more tough questions for Michaud and LePage.

LePage, who has touted his 2011 tax cuts as an economic boon to job-creators, responded to why the state economy is still 10,000 jobs short of its pre-recession level.

“What we did in the tax cuts, contrary to what people like to say, is we cut the lowest tax bracket in the state for 70,000 people who were on welfare,” LePage said. “We cut that. We let them keep that money.”

Michaud answered criticism that he has changed his position on abortion and civil rights for gays and lesbians.

“There is nothing wrong with a politician changing their mind over time,” Michaud said. “We have all evolved here in the state of Maine, whether it’s a woman’s right to choose or whether it’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) issues. And that’s a good thing that we can change.”

Staff Writers Randy Billings and Kevin Miller contributed to this report.

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