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Maine Gov. LePage Does an About-Face on Debates

Susan Sharon

AUGUSTA, Maine - After doubling down on a threat to avoid all gubernatorial debates, Republican Gov. Paul LePage abruptly did an about-face and confirmed that he would be attending such a function next month. The debate saga was thrust into the limelight again Tuesday when LePage confirmed that he would not debate his Democratic opponent, Mike Michaud, unless Michaud denounced a third-party's TV ad. But a few hours later, LePage's position had evolved.


In a meeting with reporters at the State House Tuesday morning, Gov. LePage was direct: He said he'd had it with what he characterized as false claims in an outside group's television ad. In the ad, LePage is said to equate Social Security with welfare.

Even though his Democratic opponent had nothing to do with the ad, LePage declared that the 2nd District Congressman had a moral obligation to denounce an ad that he knew was false. Until that happened LePage said he would not participate in six previously scheduled debates.

"I'm calling him out and the ball is in his court," LePage said. "And if he wants to be honest, I will be there, and if he chooses not to be honest, then I won't be there - that's his call. I'm just asking. This is the condition. I am the incumbent and I'm asking you to be honest, to run an honest campaign."

LePage said he had never said - or even thought - that Social Security was welfare, and that Michaud should make that clear to Maine Forward, a political action committee that is advocating for the congressman and attacking LePage.

"At my age, at 65, I can choose to do what I want to do and not do," LePage said. "I have the right not to stand on stage with a person who falsifies information, and I choose not to."

Michaud never denounced the ad. And yet, less than an hour after drawing his line in the sand, LePage stepped over it when his campaign confirmed that he would attend the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce Oct. 9 debate in Waterville. It was a development that Michaud predicted would happen when he met separately with reporters earlier in the day.

"The governor, as he has done several times in the past when he wants to make news, he throws a temper tantrum," Michaud said, "and then he gets over it and then he'll move forward. I understand, knowing the governor, that he goes off that way, and I think that when he calms down, he'll be there."

Michaud said he would not denounce an ad that was factually accurate. The governor's press office did issue a press release in June saying that Social Security payments were welfare benefits classified as transfer payments by the U.S.Bureau of Census and Economic Analysis. In the release, LePage went on to say: "It doesn't matter what liberals call these payments, it's welfare pure and simple."

LePage says he was referring to something else, not Social Security. Michaud says the press release speaks for itself. And he says if LePage wants to clarify his position he should do so in the debates. If the governor chooses not to attend, Michaud says he'll go ahead and debate independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler at a planned Maine State Chamber debate in Portland on Oct. 8. "I will be here on October 8th regardless of whether the governor is here or not," Michaud said.

Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
Independent candidate Eliot Cutler, who has been pressing for debates, at a press conference in Portland Tuesday.

That's a big step back from a statement Michaud made earlier in the campaign when he said he would commit to six debates, but would not take part in those LePage decided to skip. Michaud has always maintained he is running against LePage, not Cutler - who welcomed the news.

"I'm glad that Mike is finally willing to debate me, at least according to his staff," Cutler said. "Because this election is not just about getting rid of Paul LePage. It's about who is the best candidate to lead this state forward."

The Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce gubernatorial debate, which LePage has now confirmed he'll attend, is the following day, Oct. 9, from 7:15 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. in the Ayotte Auditorium at Thomas College in Waterville.

What happens after that is still unclear.