The stage was set.
The podium on the left, naturally, was labeled for Democrat Mike Michaud. On the right, a sign for Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
Independent candidate Eliot Cutler stood in the middle, ready to debate his two opponents.
The only problem? It wasn’t a real debate. It was the latest attempt by the Cutler campaign to draw attention to the fact that the election is less than 100 days from now and the three candidates have not yet shared a stage.
“Forums and debates are not for the candidates or the parties,” he said. “They are for the voters. Their eyes do not glaze over.”
Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz wrote this past weekend that the Cutler campaign may be overstating the importance of debates in the minds of voters, saying that most potential voters don’t have the stomach for more than a few debates.
“There is a lot about all these people that we don’t know,” he said, before touching on oft-repeated criticisms of Michaud (that he has taken a lot of money from special interest groups as a congressman) and LePage (that he met with a group of extremists eight times but couldn’t take the time to craft a budget.)
“This is not an American Idol contest,” Cutler said of the governor’s race. “It’s a 90-day interview … and what’s at stake is whether and where we find the leadership to pull Maine out of an economic tailspin.”
The fake stage with the empty podiums hearkened back to a scene at the 2012 Republican National Convention, during which Hollywood legend and staunch Republican Clint Eastwood shared the stage with an empty chair that was meant to symbolize Pres. Barack Obama. Eastwood – and Republicans – were panned for the stunt.
Cutler, who has been running a distant third in all public polls and also trails in fundraising even though he has given his campaign nearly $1 million from his own pocket, has been calling for debates all year but has been calling louder lately. He said he has agreed to 12 debates or forums so far and is willing to agree to as many as possible. His opponents, he said, have committed to only four.
Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said he knows of six debates where all the candidates will be present, the first of which will take place on Oct. 8. The 2010 governor’s race between LePage, Cutler, Democrat Libby Mitchell and two other lesser-known independents featured 31 debates or forums beginning August 13. Eighteen of them featured all the candidates.
Michaud’s campaign has said that it will agree to more debates, as long as LePage also participates. The Republican has been less interested in debates and forums and recently dropped out of a debate in Bangor. That mirrors a strategy LePage used to great effect in 2010, at least at the end of the campaign.
Grant and Rachel Irwin, the party’s communications director, walked over to Portland City Hall to attend Monday’s press conference and offered a response when Cutler was through. “I really don’t see what the problem is,” Grant said.
During Grant’s exchange with members of the press, Cutler campaign staffers, including spokeswoman Crystal Canney, attempted to engage with Grant and Irwin on debates. The exchange was spirited but brief and civil. Grant and Irwin offered to talk to Canney away from the press but Canney persisted. When she asked why Michaud won’t debate Cutler one-0n-one, Grant said it would be “ridiculous” to have a debate that did not feature the incumbent.
Even the state Republican Party waded into the fray, sending out a press release later Monday calling for a debate between the “First-Choice Cutler” and “Second-Stringer Michaud,” and suggesting that Michaud was running away from debating Cutler.
Notably, the Maine GOP’s release didn’t suggest that LePage also be a part of those debates, saying he was too busy governing to spend time campaigning. “Governor LePage is working hard to reform state government and bring jobs to Maine while Congressman Michaud has the luxury of campaigning all day this fall,” said Republican Party communications director David Sorensen.
Asked whether he plans to change his strategy of calling for debates, given that it hasn’t worked yet, Cutler said, “let’s wait and see.” Then he predicted that if just one of the many groups planning on hosting a forum or debate actually is willing to debate even if all the candidates don’t commit, others will soon follow.
If the other candidates continue to resist debates, Cutler said, “I think voters will take it out on them in the fall.”