- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - In their first televised debate, the three candidates for Maine governor exchanged barbs Wednesday night in a fiery discussion of issues that ranged from abortion rights and health care to the economy and bipartisanship.

Independent Eliot Cutler attacked six-term Democratic congressman Mike Michaud for changing his position on gay rights and abortion rights over his career, charging that it took Michaud “nearly 30 years to figure out why women feel so strongly about their bodies and their rights.”

Michaud, who would be the first openly gay candidate to become elected governor, countered that his positions on the two issues have evolved. He accused Cutler of being upset that gay rights and abortion rights groups have backed the Democrat in the race because they know he’s the one “that can run this state.”

Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who stands to benefit from Cutler’s presence in the three-way race, further put Michaud on the defensive by asking a question designed to draw out Cutler’s contention that Democrats approached him first him about being the party’s nominee.

“How do you feel about that, Mike?” the governor asked. The Democratic Party has denied Cutler’s claim that it asked him to be the nominee.

The three addressed about 600 people at the Augusta Civic Center, along with an audience watching on WCSH-TV in Portland and WLBZ-TV in Bangor. The debate was sponsored by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Observers have said the candidates’ five debates could have a big impact in the race. Recent polls show LePage and Michaud neck and neck, with Cutler in a distant third.

Michaud, who has pledged to introduce a bill to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act on his first day in office, continued his attack against LePage for vetoing such a bill five times. Someone watching the debate is going without “life-saving medication” because LePage has rejected the expansion, Michaud charged.

“Governor, would you be able to look in the camera and tell that person why you felt that they were too costly for care?” he said.

On the economy, Cutler attacked LePage, saying Maine’s is lagging behind other states. “We are almost last in the country. It’s like saying the Red Sox had a good year because they won 71 games,” he said.

“You’re dead wrong,” LePage retorted.

Addressing criticism that he’s been too partisan and unwilling to work with those who disagree with him, LePage said he would work with anyone on “good policy” but that bad policy “goes in the garbage.”

While two-thirds of the bills that went into law last session were sponsored by Democrats, the majority party in the Legislature rejected dozens of the bills he sponsored, LePage said.

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

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