- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - The three candidates for governor clashed Tuesday in their final debate, highlighting their differences on a wide range of issues, including health care and welfare.

Partisan sparks flew early and often between Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who are running in a dead heat in the race, far ahead of independent Eliot Cutler, two weeks before Maine residents go to the polls.

LePage, responding to Michaud’s criticism of his policies such as cutting state aid to cities and towns, charged that the six-term congressman “doesn’t know what honesty is.”

Michaud countered that the outspoken governor will say “anything, whether it’s factual or not.”

The hour-long debate was aired live on WMTW-TV in Portland and on WABI-TV in Bangor. It touched on the candidates’ views on education funding, welfare-to-work policies and expanding Medicaid under the federal health care law, which LePage vehemently opposes and his two opponents support.

It’s likely the last time the three will take the debate stage together before the Nov. 4 election. The Maine Public Broadcasting Network is airing a statewide gubernatorial debate Thursday night, but all the candidates aren’t expected to participate.

On Tuesday, Cutler accused Michaud of keeping secret how he would pay for his economic plan, which Michaud says will cost at least $36 million in the first year and calls for investments in renewable energy, among other things.

“I’ve suggested he’s going to propose some kind of tax and he’s keeping it a secret,” said Cutler, a former Democrat who narrowly lost to LePage in 2010.

Michaud responded that “budgets are about priorities” and argued that he has the experience negotiating budgets in the state Legislature necessary to turn his policy proposals into reality.

On the question of whether the state is prepared to handle an Ebola outbreak, Cutler and Michaud criticized LePage for leaving vacant two of the top positions in the state for dealing with infectious diseases.

LePage shot back that he has been assured that Maine is as prepared as it can be.

“I’m not going to be irresponsible and scare the Maine people,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cutler dismissed the idea that he should be doing better at this point in the race, saying that independent candidates gain momentum in the last two weeks.

“That’s when I did four years ago, and I don’t expect this time to be any different,” Cutler said. “Except that I expect to win.”

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Follow Alanna Durkin at http://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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