ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In a fiercely fought election season, the contest for governor of Maine is especially bitter. Republican mayor and Tea Party favorite Paul LePage is in a dead heat with Democratic Senate President Libby Mitchell.
As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, it's a race where tone and temperament have become as important as the economy.
TOVIA SMITH: He is not the first candidate selling himself as a straight shooter, but even Paul LePage will tell you he often winds up shooting himself in the foot, like when he boasted recently how he would stand up to President Obama.
Mayor PAUL LePAGE (Republican, Waterville, Maine; Republican Gubernatorial Candidate, Maine): You're going to be seeing a lot of me on the front page saying Governor LePage tells Obama to go to hell.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: Outrage at that comment, capped off what LePage called an absolute disaster. He was already taking heat for lashing out at reporters who had learned his wife declared residency and took tax breaks in both Maine and Florida.
Mayor LePAGE: If you guys want to do the Enquirer, I'm not playing.
Unidentified Man: Why did...
SMITH: LePage stormed out of one press conference and then jacked it up another notch at his next.
Mayor LePAGE: Let's - let's stop the (bleep) and let's answer the question.
SMITH: LePage has since apologized for that and the comment about President Obama, but he's also hoping it may all spin back in his favor promoting him as the unpolished, unabashed outsider, who'd fight for the little guy.
LePage grew up poor and ran away from his alcoholic and abusive father when he was just 11 to live on the streets. He refused to be interviewed for this report, but he offered this to Maine Public Radio.
Mayor LePAGE: There was an editorial that says you could take the person off the streets, but you can't take the street out of the person. And I will readily admit that if you're on your own from 11 years on, there's a little bit of that that stays. As much as you try, some of that stays.
SMITH: If LePage's experience makes Mainers believe he can relate to their economic pain, Democrat Libby Mitchell is working harder to convince voters.
State Senator LIBBY MITCHELL (Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate, Maine): It is really scary out there. I get it. I'm very empathetic. I want to help.
SMITH: Mitchell has a more genteel and polished manner - refined over 30 years in electoral politics. But as she's finding, her wealth of political experience, this year, may hurt more than it helps.
State Sen. MITCHELL: I'm not the incumbent governor, but I get all the blame.
SMITH: Mitchell has taken hits for taxes being too high, public assistance too generous and government too big. For her part, she's been painting LePage as extreme, warning voters, for example, that he would threaten Maine's natural beauty and its tourism by welcoming a nuclear power plant and offshore drilling.
State Sen. MITCHELL: I'm hoping that people will not vote in anger. Very often, when you do things in anger, you regret it.
SMITH: But last week, Mitchell had to make her own apology when LePage released a photo of her laughing at a picture calling President Bush an international terrorist. All the bickering has created an opportunity for the three independent candidates in the race. Elliot Cutler, a former Carter administration energy official, has seen something of a surge.
Mr. ELLIOT CUTLER (Independent Gubernatorial Candidate, Maine): It's a function in part of candidates making mistakes. It's a function in part of people paying more attention. And I'm delighted to see it.
SMITH: Polls continue to show many undecideds in this traditionally blue but also fiercely independent state, including some like Mike Provencher from Vassalboro and Jim Mason from Augusta who both say they used to support LePage.
Mr. MIKE PROVENCHER: The one that really sealed it for me was when he said he would tell the president to go to hell. That's disrespect to the office. And I don't care if you like the president or not. I don't want a governor who's going around saying those kinds of things.
Mr. JIM MASON: I think that's his character, and unfortunately, he's not ready for prime time, but he's probably ready for late night, Saturday night, perhaps.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: Mainers have traditionally gone for more moderate Republicans. And party leaders have been trying to portray LePage as less extreme than his Tea Party supporters. Though, as voters like Rick Smith from Old Orchard see it, drastic times do call for drastic measures.
Mr. RICK SMITH: Yeah, he's a little rough around the edges, but, hey, that's maybe what we need. I don't think he takes any (bleep).
SMITH: LePage's challenge now is to make sure he doesn't dish any out either. He's stepping up his ads on TV, but he's less and less willing these days to join the many candidate debates or to field questions from reporters.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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