The debate styles of Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler – and to a lesser degree, Republican Gov. Paul LePage – shifted dramatically from last week’s debate in Augusta to Monday’s forum in Portland.

As the final debate looms Tuesday night, will the candidates look to shift again, or will they play it safe?

Tuesday’s debate, hosted by WMTW of Auburn, WABI of Bangor and CNN, is the last chance before a televised audience for LePage, Michaud and Cutler to distinguish themselves from their opponents.

The debates that have been held so far, dating back to Oct. 8, have been a mixed bag for the three candidates. Each has exhibited strengths and weaknesses, giving each campaign material to attack or boast about.

LePage has displayed passion, knowledge of the issues and a self-deprecating style. However, his anger and contempt for Michaud rose to the surface in the most recent debate Monday.

Michaud has mostly positioned himself as the likeable, bipartisan antidote to LePage the bully, while acknowledging that he’s not the most polished debater. On Monday, the Democratic congressman stepped up his criticism of LePage, a tactic he had yet to embrace on stage.

Cutler, who had been pressuring his opponents to debate for several months, has been well-spoken and detailed in his policy plans while alternating his criticisms between LePage and Michaud. Last week, Cutler was aggressive to the point of being brusque and condescending – drawing criticism especially from Democrats – and he softened his tone considerably during Monday night’s debate.

None of the three candidates has done anything in the debates to put themselves in any jeopardy, but no one has clearly distinguished himself from the others.

As usual, Monday’s debate provided the campaigns with takeaways.

Democrats have seized on LePage’s comment that people who make $100,000 are “not that rich,” as evidence that the Republican is out of touch with the working class. Only 16 percent of Maine make more than $100,000, according to U.S. Census figures.

“He doesn’t understand the hardships that many Mainers face and his policies show it,” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said of LePage. “He’d rather take a jab at the struggling families in our state than debate the issues, the state of the economy or come up with a plan to move Maine forward.”

Republicans, by contrast, have focused on Michaud’s comment to LePage that, “taking care of veterans is more than just having ice cream socials at the Blaine House.”

The Maine Republican Party on Tuesday sent a statement from LePage’s son, Paul LePage II, condemning Michaud for insulting First Lady Ann LePage, who organized the ice cream socials with veterans.

“Michaud has hurled a lot of falsehoods and insults at my dad,” the statement said. “I guess that’s what you can expect from a career politician in a desperate campaign. But going after my mother by demeaning her efforts to help military families is outrageous and completely unprecedented. ”

LePage himself took umbrage with that comment on Monday.

“I’m quite upset that you have taken her down because you don’t like my politics,” LePage said. “Shame on you.”

Michaud, for his part, responded during the debate by saying that he thinks the first lady is a “sweetheart.”

“My criticism goes to you governor,” he said.

Cutler, perhaps, has the most at stake Tuesday night. He has urged voters to wait for the debates before making up their minds, and now only has one more chance to make his case that he is a better alternative than LePage or Michaud.

On Monday, Cutler was often marginalized by the back-and-forth bickering between the LePage and Michaud. At one point, the moderator, Gregg Lagerquist of WGME-13, reminded the candidates that, “this is not a two-person debate.”

Several recent independent public polls have shown a close race between Michaud and LePage, with Cutler trailing.

Four years ago, Cutler rode a late surge and nearly overtook LePage on Election Day, but Democrats have worked for months building a stronger coalition of support for Michaud to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

Tuesday’s final debate will be held a full two weeks before election day.

There are other public events but none where the candidates will be present at the same time.

On Thursday evening in Bangor, Maine Public Broadcasting Network will host its statewide debate. However, LePage has allowed declined an invitation and Michaud has said he would not participate in that debate if the governor is absent.

MPBN officials said that they will still hold the event even though Cutler is the only participant.


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