PORTLAND, Maine — In a freewheeling and heated hourlong debate co-sponsored by CBS 13 and the BDN, Maine’s three gubernatorial candidates on Monday night all found openings between their respective scripts to fight a war of quips, aiming for laughs and applause from a live audience stacked with a mix of supporters from each campaign.

Lost in the verbal free-for-all was much more than passing mention of serious policy matters or justification for the candidates’ positions on education, job creation, veterans services and fiscal management.

With Election Day two weeks away and one more televised debate ahead on Tuesday, the three candidates took advantage of a loosely formatted debate that often ground down to conflicts between Democrat Mike Michaud, Maine’s 2nd District U.S. House representative, and Republican Gov. Paul LePage, again teeing up chances for independent Eliot Cutler to look directly into the camera and ask voters if they were sick of the bickering.

The dynamic has been typical for the debates so far but Monday’s differed for the sharpness of Michaud and LePage’s digs at one another after questions focused on education, the economy and leadership styles.

Michaud, who has stayed close to talking points in past debates, was more animated, going on the offensive against LePage mid-debate while keeping away from attacks by Cutler, who he has largely ignored during the campaign.

“You say you’re not a politician,” Michaud said, turning to LePage. “You’re one of the best politicians I’ve ever seen: You know the issue that divide Mainers, immigration and welfare… you don’t know how to bring people together.”

That criticism echoed Michaud’s past attempts to portray LePage as unwilling to work with his political opponents, a skill the Democrat said he has honed during more than 30 years in elected office. LePage shot back with examples of what he characterized as state legislation passed with bipartisan support and a list of proposed federal bills for which Michaud could not find Republican sponsors.

At another point, Michaud criticized what he characterized as the governor’s largely symbolic support of veterans, saying “taking care of our veterans is about more than having ice cream socials at the Blaine House.”

Attention turned off-stage, to the front row, when LePage gestured to his wife, Ann, who he said ran those receptions.

“I’m quite upset that you’re taking her down because you don’t like my politics,” LePage said. “Shame on you.”

With a debate format that allowed candidates to stay or stray from one topic as criticisms flowed into one another, Michaud responded that he has said “over and over [LePage has] a sweetheart for a wife,” before arguing that the Republican has not pushed for policies supporting veterans, including his decision to veto Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which came up at various times during the debate.

With that topic and others, the incumbent LePage asserted his knowledge as the state’s chief executive, offering a bet on how much of the state’s uninsured population would qualify to have the federal government cover all of their insurance costs.

“Let’s go to Washington and we’ll sit down [with the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services] and if I’m wrong… then I will resign,” LePage said to Michaud. “And if you’re wrong, you will retire to your six acres in Medway.”

Enter Cutler.

“I just want to know, what if they’re both wrong?”

“That leaves you an opening,” LePage said.

“I’ll buy your plane tickets,” Cutler said.

While quips Monday took center stage, the candidates did cover new ground on education during the debate.

Asked whether they would support Common Core State Standards, which detail what public school students should know at the end of each grade through their high school graduation, LePage expressed skepticism of the guidelines he signed into law in 2011, attributing the fall of Massachusetts’ public education system from one of the best systems in the country in part to the state’s adoption of those standards.

Michaud and Cutler both diverted attention from the standards, developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which have been adopted by all but a few states.

“I think teachers are sick of being pushed from pillar to post,” Cutler said, advocating trying those standards for a number of years before tweaking them.

At least three states have repealed using the Common Core standards and in April 2013, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution opposing the standards. A state panel is due to study the issue and give a recommendation to the Legislature next year on whether Maine should join the states repealing those standards.

The debates come as LePage and Michaud deal with a delicate chemistry, locked in a dead heat, according to most polls, and Cutler looking to replicate and improve on the late surge that pushed him within two points of LePage in 2010.

With such a tight race, the verbal thrusts and parries Monday night could be enough to alter the outcome.

“Any time you’ve got an election that’s as close as this one appears it is, anything that happens could possibly be impactful on the eventual outcome,” University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer said before Monday’s debate.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.