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Democratic debate revealing, but there's lots more to learn

A full exploration of the views of all 11 primary candidates in both major parties takes diligent reading and listening.

With the much-publicized Democratic candidate debate on WGME-TV last week, the gubernatorial primary season is fully upon us. Tulips are beginning to fade but the candidates are rushing toward full bloom, with the primaries only a little more than a month away.

Of course, most of these candidates have been in the running at least since January, but who has been paying attention? Time to wake up. Much is at stake.

The Democratic race was simplified last week when John Richardson dropped out, leaving but four (to the Republicans' seven).

Those four Dems, Pat McGowan, Libby Mitchell, Steve Rowe and Rosa Scarcelli, faced off in front of the cameras last Wednesday evening.

For the three familiar candidates, McGowan, Mitchell and Rowe, there were few surprises either in style or substance. For Scarcelli, new to politics and from a different generation, it was a Nick Clegg moment -- Clegg being the British Liberal Democratic leader who propelled himself to the top of the polls with a strong performance in the first debate of party leaders in that country's national election.

Scarcelli made the most of her moment, sounding more confident and determined than her colleagues. She certainly delivered the most memorable line I have heard in Maine politics for a long time when she said of the other three contenders: "I'm running with some wonderful people. We need to thank them and move on."

It is unlikely that any of the other three candidates will be intimidated by such "made for TV" rhetoric. They are all tough and experienced. In fact, in his closing statement, Rowe acknowledged that while he was not the most polished speaker, he had a record of experience and accomplishment second to none in this group. He was right on both counts.

McGowan, usually an engaging personality, seemed flat, although he scored points by saying he had a home energy audit done on his old farmhouse in Hallowell.

He refrained from saying whether or not he had installed a wood-pellet boiler, perhaps because he did not want to call attention to Republican candidate Les Otten's business venture that sells such boilers.

Mitchell stressed repeatedly that, as Senate president, she had reconciled two very difficult deficit budgets and passed two bond issues. While this is true, I believe more credit should go to the Appropriations Committee leadership than to Mitchell.

Such televised debates, brief and packed with pressure, are more a test of appearance than reality. On appearance, Scarcelli gave herself the opportunity to be considered a serious candidate.

The reality is that the next governor will be faced with as difficult a fiscal situation as any this state has ever faced. We have grown no net new jobs in the last 10 years, while growing our state expenditures in K-12 education and in Medicare at unsustainable rates. This is serious.

The state is slowly but inexorably failing. In spite of their "in front of the camera" optimism about the prospects for Maine, all of these candidates are savvy enough to know that they will face enormous difficulties should they reach the Blaine House.

Instead of acknowledging reality, most of these candidates talked about how they would try to attain the state's legal obligation to fund 55 percent of total K-12 education.

In reality, this is a pipe dream. Only Scarcelli and, to a lesser degree, Rowe, gave any sense that they understood this. No one mentioned the real crisis in Maine education -- our chronic under-funding of our university system.

All said that jobs were their No. 1 focus, but no one acknowledged that the state's role in this can only be to set the stage, over time, for a business environment that will be more welcoming of business investment.

To be fair, the candidates were pressured by time to give brief responses. Scarcelli did reference the jobs program on her website, which is a decent plan. McGowan referenced his plan for developing a biomass energy initiative -- another decent idea.

My conclusion from this debate: Please don't base your vote on that one performance. Take a harder, longer look at each of the candidates. The weekly issues series that is now running in the Maine Sunday Telegram is a good place to start. Check out the candidates' websites as well -- there's lots of PR there, but also indications of their positioning on the big issues.

I am not quite ready to endorse any Democratic candidate yet, but I am getting close. If you are a Democrat, it is time to start doing your homework.