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Blue State With Independent Twist: Maine's 3-Way Race For Governor

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's zoom in on one of the campaigns observers are keeping a close eye on as we head to Election Day. It's the race for governor in Maine. Hillary Clinton lands there today to stump for the Democrat in the race. Republican incumbent Paul LePage is also facing an Independent candidate who needs to be taken very seriously because he finished a close second four years ago. NPR's Brian Naylor reports from Portland.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: What makes the Maine governor's race so interesting is that this is a pretty blue state. President Obama won it twice. But it also has a strong Independent tradition, now personified by U.S. Senator Angus King. And it's the Independent runner for governor, Eliot Cutler, who may hold the key to this year's race.

At a debate-watching party in a Portland pub the other night, Cutler's supporters, like South Portland telecommunications consultant Bob Furman, said their candidate is by far the best qualified on the ballot.

BOB FURMAN: I think we all - voters, have a responsibility of voting our conscience and voting for the candidate that we think will do the best job for our state.

NAYLOR: Cutler is a former Democrat and for a time a Republican running as an independent four years ago. He finished just two points behind LePage. But polls show him further back this time around, and Democrats fear his progressive views could siphon support from their candidate and pave the way for this man, LePage, to win reelection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOVERNOR PAUL LEPAGE: I never thought I'd be standing here in front of you. I thought I'd be standing in front of you with numbers in front of my chest. And that's no lie. As a child, that's really what I thought life had for me.

NAYLOR: Paul LePage had a hardscrabble childhood to put it mildly. He ran away from home at age 11 to escape an abusive father and lived on the streets. As governor, he's cut taxes and spending on welfare programs. He may be best-known for his blunt and at times crude statements. He's compared the IRS to the Gestapo and told the NAACP it could kiss a part of his anatomy, but for his political opponents, LePage has no apologies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEPAGE: Harry Truman did just fine, LBJ just fine, and they're trying to get elected governor. And they are going against somebody that's going to tell the truth.

NAYLOR: Here's what he said about his Democratic opponent Mike Michaud, who has accused LePage of saying in a news release that Social Security was welfare.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEPAGE: You got to take editorial privileges to get to say that I believe it's welfare, and he doesn't have the intellectual capacity to get there.

NAYLOR: Michaud shrugs off LePage's taunts. The five-term congressman, a former paper mill worker, says they're a reflection of who the governor is.

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REPRESENTATIVE MIKE MICHAUD: The fact that, yes, the governor has had a rough upbringing, but you'd think he would learn from that. And his rhetoric and the policies that he put forward has been detrimental to Mainers.

NAYLOR: There is no doubt Maine's economy is suffering. It's ranked in one survey the worst state in the nation to do business in. Several paper mills, which have been major employers for generations, have shut down. Cutler, a businessman and lawyer, says Maine has to come up with creative thinking to get out of its economic doldrums, and neither LePage nor Michaud are up to the task. And Cutler dismisses the idea that a vote for him helps his opponents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIOT CUTLER: If people will vote their hopes and not their fears, if they'll have courage and confidence to vote the way we were taught to vote in a democracy, which is to vote for the person you think will do the best job, we'll win in a walk.

NAYLOR: Cutler picked up a key endorsement this week from the state's largest newspaper. Michaud meanwhile is hoping today's appearance by Hillary Clinton and a stop in Maine by President Obama next week will rally Democrats behind him in November. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Portland, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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