ROCKLAND — In the beginning of a campaign, it’s important for candidates to establish the impression they want to leave in the minds of voters. So with the primaries two months behind them, each of the five candidates for governor is busy honing his or her image. At Friday’s Island and Coastal Issues Gubernatorial Candidates Forum at the Strand Theatre here on the Midcoast, the hopefuls further solidified what kind of candidate they will be during the campaign.
Eliot Cutler: The Contender
Cutler, an independent candidate, continues to bring a sense of gravity to the third-way campaign. We’re told over and over again that this year that being perceived as part of the establishment hurts. As the most experienced and well-known independent candidate, Cutler can try to stay above the fray of Red/Blue politics without having to go through the pain of being an unknown (See Kevin Scott, Shawn Moody). Remember those ads the day after the primaries? Cutler is definitely appreciative of not having that big (R) or (D) after his name.
At the forum, Cutler was on the offensive. His first comments amounted to an opening salvo at Republican Paul LePage, who was absent due to a scheduling conflict. Cutler, who has made energy policy a hallmark of his campaign, said he wished LePage had been there to defend his support for off-shore oil drilling in Maine.
“I find Paul’s support for off-shore drilling unconscionable,” Cutler said. “If anyone thinks they’re going to drill off the coast of Maine, they’re going to have to drill through me.” Cutler’s strength is in his policy positions, and his willingness to take criticism head-on, whether it be refuting accusations his campaign sifted through LePage’s trash, or holding his ground in a debate (See Shawn Moody, below).
Libby Mitchell: The Professional
Like Cutler, Democrat Mitchell has a boatload of experience. Unlike Cutler, who worked primarily in D.C., Mitchell has spent her decades-long professional political career in Augusta. And she’s proud of it.
During the forum and on the stump, Mitchell peppers her approachable, personable style of campaigning with references to her time in the legislature. At the forum she approached questions in a matter-of-fact, this-is-how-its’s-done way.
When other candidates talked about the need to cut spending, Mitchell waxed philosophical, explaining the role of government spending.
“The budget for state government is nothing but a blueprint for our values,” Mitchell said, referencing roads, health care and education. “Let’s ask everyone who says they want to cut the budget, What would you cut?”
At another point, Mitchell casually explained the catch-22 of debating spending on road and bridge repair. Spend money now on roads, Mitchell said, or spend money later to fix your car because the roads are bad. This pragmatism, albeit solidly Democratic Left-pragmatism, lends Mitchell an air of professionalism. As does her tendency to slide into the background and campaign quietly when she is attacked. (She did make a passing comment on a recent controversy, saying “Most of you probably know how old I am because of some banter on the campaign …”)
The problem with Mitchell’s approach is that playing up your experience and legislature savvy can come awfully close to coming off as an “Augusta Insider” or “Career Politician.” For her part, Mitchell takes that risk head-on. “Public service is something I’m proud of,” she said Friday in Rockland.
Mitchell likewise shrugs off the assertion that her campaign has stayed in the background of this race. With LePage and Cutler making headlines over the last few weeks, people have wondered where Mitchell was. “I have not stepped back at all,” Mitchell told the Maine Observe, mentioning stops to people’s homes, community centers and visits to towns across the state. “Mine is very much a grassroots campaign,” she said.
Shawn Moody: The Libertarian?
Independent Shawn Moody (and Kevin Scott, for that matter) is harder to peg than Mitchell, Cutler or LePage.
At the forum Friday, Moody used nearly every opportunity he could to talk about small business, sometimes when it wasn’t even clear why. He was also the only candidate to drop “capitalism” and “the free market” into his responses, and repeated throughout the forum that the answer to most problems was relaxed regulation. These moves are usually preserved for libertarian-leaning candidates.
Moody did have one gem on Friday though. When the candidates were asked whether Maine should invest in the state’s lobstering industry, and how, Moody lobbed a volley at the lobster industry for not reinventing itself or it’s product. He said that shipping live lobster around the country was a model that “doesn’t work anymore.”
“It’s like going to the store and buying a whole chicken,” Moody said.
Paul LePage: The Recluse, nee Tea Partier
As noted above, Republican Paul LePage was absent from Friday’s forum. Organizers assured us that it really was a scheduling conflict that kept him away. Still, ever since the “Crazy Train” affair and the promise to deal with press only in writing, LePage has really slid into the background of this election — a complete 180-degree turn from just a few weeks ago, when Mitchell was widely accused of the same.
When LePage won the primary, backed by Maine’s tea party crowd, we were shocked. When LePage continued to place first in early polls, we were shocked. When LePage went off-script that fateful day on the rails of the Midcoast, we were shocked (and amused). Now, all we can do is wonder what’s next for the Waterville mayor and early gubernatorial favorite.
Kevin Scott: The Starry-Eyed Newcomer
As with Shawn Moody, I have paid less attention to Kevin Scott, the last independent candidate, than I should. I’m aware of his 32-hour workweek plan for state workers and his role with water treatment in Andover and his smart-looking website.
Scott, more than any of his competitors, was in it to win it on Friday. And it was laughable. Literally. The audience laughed at Scott twice, both times because of his pretentious answers; once for saying that one of his opponents could be his education commissioner after he won the race, and again when he chastised Eliot Cutler for debating Shawn Moody on whether to require automobile inspection. Had these both been jokes, Scott would of been a hit. But he said he was serious.
This self-assured ego contrasted with the man on stage, who seemed to be shocked to have made it as far as he has. I don’t say this to slight Scott, who seems to have his heart in the right place, but for most of the forum, he gazed around the theater and looked confused. He was the only candidate to make the moderator repeat questions.
At one point, he said the answer to all the questions, ranging from education to transportation, would be the same: “I’ll bring in people who know a thing or two that I don’t,” who can help fix the problem. This lack of nuance makes him look shallow when compared to folks like Mitchell or Cutler who can talk policy in their sleep.