LEWISTON, Maine — In a television advertisement released Thursday, Eliot Cutler, an independent candidate in the Maine governor’s race, again challenges his opponents to a series of public debates.

Cutler is facing incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Maine’s 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democrat in the race.

The advertisement, the second Cutler’s campaign has released this week, features the candidate in an empty auditorium with two empty podiums with the names Michaud and LePage on them. Only Cutler is standing behind a podium with his name.

Since spring, Cutler’s campaign has made repeated calls for debates and at one point suggested the candidates hold one debate in each of Maine’s 16 counties. Cutler says in the advertisement there were more than 30 debates during the 2010 governor’s race.

The advertisement’s release comes a day after the Greater York Region Chamber of Commerce canceled a scheduled debate after LePage declined the invitation. Michaud’s campaign has said he only will take part in the debates in which LePage has agreed to participate.

The two campaigns differ on how many that will be. Michaud’s campaign said Thursday they have six debates on the schedule while Alexander Willette, a LePage campaign spokesman, said the governor’s campaign only confirmed five debates.

The first confirmed debate between the three candidates is set for Oct. 8 in Portland, hosted by the Portland Chamber of Commerce. The Bangor Daily News is scheduled to co-sponsor a gubernatorial debate with CBS 13 on Oct. 20. The last debate is set for Oct. 21 and will be hosted by WMTW and CNN’s Debate Night in America.

Cutler is generally perceived to be more likely to pull voters away from Michaud than from LePage, whose support consistently has polled near 40 percent since his election four years ago. The majority of polls conducted since Michaud announced his candidacy last year also place him near 40 percent, with Cutler lagging at less than 20 percent.

A surge for Cutler fueled by strong showings in debates likely poses a greater threat to Michaud.

Michaud’s campaign has said it does not consider Cutler to be the Democrat’s main opponent and questioned Cutler’s viability as a candidate, despite the fact that Cutler placed a close second to LePage in 2010. That year, there were five candidates and no incumbent in the race.

Several Maine political science and elections scholars have said it makes no sense strategically for an incumbent or frontrunner to risk too many debates.

Christian Potholm, a political science professor at Bowdoin College with 40 years of political polling experience, told the Sun Journal in May he has never seen a debate change a candidate’s polling position.

Potholm, who also has worked on statewide campaigns in past, said he would recommend the candidates do one or two televised debates statewide and leave it at that.

Others have also suggested that voters aren’t as interested in debates as the candidates may be and said more than four debates is plenty.

Meanwhile, Jim Melcher, a University of Maine at Farmington political science professor and author, said it’s nearly a standard practice for an independent candidate to clamor for more debates as a way to gain validity.

In the 30-second spot released Thursday, Cutler criticizes LePage and Michaud for limiting the number of debates they will attend and for only agreeing to debates in October, late in the election cycle.

“Gov. LePage doesn’t want early debates because his record is indefensible,” Cutler says. “And Congressman Michaud, he’s changed his position on the issues so many times it’s hard to keep track.”

Cutler again raises the issue of early voting by absentee ballot, suggesting his opponents want to postpone holding any debates until many have already cast their ballots. He then instructs viewers to tell the other two candidates they won’t vote until after there are debates.

“Maine needs debates before you vote — tell them you are going to wait for debates,” Cutler says.

In the closing line of the ad, Cutler chastises LePage and Michaud by asking, “If they don’t have the courage to debate, how will they ever have the courage to lead?”

Willette said the governor was looking forward to the fall debates.

“The Cutler campaign is grasping at straws,” Willette said of the new television spot. “Gov. LePage has been busy this summer meeting with voters all over Maine, and he is excited about the opportunity to debate his opponents in October.”

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.