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GOP Blaine House contenders show differences in face-off

Primary candidates have limited opportunities to strut their stuff, so voters need to pay attention.

The seven Republican gubernatorial candidates faced off Friday evening on the WGME/Maine Media Great Debate series -- a series which had featured the four Democratic candidates the week before.

My principal conclusion from watching: There is no way to feature seven candidates in a meaningful way in an hour-long debate, particularly one with significant commercial interruptions.

If an advantage was gained, it was that Les Otten managed to get his campaign commercials aired with WGME's other ads, thus giving him more air time at least.

Having said this, I will venture observations on the style if not the substance of these candidates. For many people watching on Friday evening, this would have been the first time they have seen all the candidates. Moreover, with the June 8 primary now fast approaching, this widely televised debate with its rapid-fire one-minute responses was the first time these candidates have been under significant pressure.

It is one thing to look silly or ill-informed at the local Chamber of Commerce, quite another to do so in front of a nearly statewide audience.

In short, there was pressure and it showed on the candidates, particularly on Steve Abbott, who looked uncomfortable for much of the debate. There are high expectations for Abbott as the longtime, well-regarded chief of staff for Sen. Susan Collins. all accounts he is an accomplished politician, but retail politics at the state level are very different from those in Washington, D.C. Despite some thoughtful responses, Abbott had trouble connecting.

Paul LePage, on the other hand, looked like a politician not afraid to get in close and engage. His gruff demeanor and conservative views are clearly meant to appeal to the right wing of the party.

Bill Beardsley comes across as the kindly grandfather of the group, while Bruce Poliquin is the bright student who keeps raising his hand to get the teacher to call on him.

Matt Jacobson is something of an enigma. A newcomer to politics, he has significant business experience, particularly in his current position as CEO of Maine & Company. Unfortunately, his manner is that of the person with all the answers. I find myself thinking it isn't quite that simple.

Which gets us to Peter Mills and Les Otten, the two candidates who convey in different ways a certain experience and presence that seems to this viewer to separate them from the other five.

Mills consistently added a measure of thoughtful knowledge and common sense to the dialogue. He clearly understands the complexity of issues and their historical context better than any of the other candidates. In the interests of full disclosure, I have worked with Mills on K-12 education issues over the past several years, so my sense of him may be impacted by this previous experience.

Otten is another special case. He is truly an entrepreneur and businessman of ability. He came across in the debate as someone with maturity and experience that could be translated into gubernatorial leadership.

Unfortunately, Otten also has some "baggage." He attracts questions about his ethical judgment, most recently when one of his staffers plagiarized education material from the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

Though I suspect MHPC was secretly delighted with the publicity for its work, it was the kind of lapse that some associate with Otten. We'll see.

Overall, this debate was clearly the beginning of the investigation of the candidates. Their combination of one-minute sound bites does not a governor make. If you have followed any of the press about this campaign and the state of the state, you understand that the next governor will face substantial challenges.

I want to know much more about how each proposes to address these challenges -- reigniting the economy, lowering the cost and difficulty of doing business in Maine, taking on entitlement programs that sap our ability to invest in the future, and making our K-12 system work better while being efficient about the enormous resources we pour into it.

All of the candidates talk about these problems, and all suggest they know how to address them. None convinced me of this in the last Great Debate.

We need to hear lots more about solutions. The currently running weekly series in the Sunday Telegram is a good place to start.

June 8 will be here before you know it. Take the time to be informed before going to the polls.