PORTLAND, Maine — The four 2018 Republican gubernatorial candidates sparred for the first time Tuesday night in a television studio in a dense hour-long debate hosted by WGME and the Bangor Daily News.

It came with just over two months left in a primary race between businessman Shawn Moody, former Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, Maine Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason and Maine House Minority Leader Ken Fredette that is shifting from under-the-radar grass-roots work in party circles to more public campaign activities.

The debate illuminated the influence of Gov. Paul LePage and divisions developing between longtime and relatively new Republicans. But there were scant policy differences as the candidates look to make a case that they’re the most trustworthy conservative.

Mayhew and Moody were under attack for much of the debate over their conservative bonafides. Mayhew was a longtime Democrat before becoming a Republican in 2014 while Moody joined the party in October 2017 after running for governor as an independent in 2010.

During Mayhew’s tenure in the LePage administration, she was the governor’s top lieutenant in the fight against Medicaid expansion. But Mason highlighted her support of a 2001 expansion as a lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association and her history as a Democratic operative.

Mayhew walked a tightrope of claiming credit for sweeping changes to Maine’s welfare system while also trying to distance herself from problems in the state’s child protective and mental health care systems, the former of which is under investigation after the deaths of two girls.

Fredette went after Moody at one point over his pro-abortion rights stance in 2010 and a donation to a Democratic legislative candidate in 2016, leading Moody to give a relatively calculated defense of his enrollment as a Republican, saying he didn’t want to be a “spoiler” like two-time independent candidate Eliot Cutler.

LePage still looms large. All four candidates tried to lay claim to his conservative victories, but Mayhew and Moody had trouble answering a question about an area where they disagreed with the governor as they look to highlight similarities to LePage, who polls well in party circles.

Moody eventually said he would be “more of a collaborator” than LePage. Mayhew mostly breezed past the question — even after being pressed — and highlighted her work with the governor before hinting that they may have had disagreements during budget negotiations.

Mason was also hit by Moody over the Republican-led Senate’s efforts to often override LePage vetoes, but Mason schooled him on legislative procedure, noting LePage’s 2013 threat to veto all bills until the Legislature acceded to a plan to pay hospital debt. Moody looked relatively uninformed and light on policy at times as he tried to play up his “outsider” persona.

There is no true moderate in the field, but Fredette may have the most moderate governing philosophy. The candidates’ pitches are clear: Moody highlighted his business background, Mayhew her work on welfare issues and Mason and Fredette their reliable conservative records and experience in Augusta.

But while Fredette has stood with LePage in helping block voter-approved Medicaid expansion to date, he was the only one last night to say that it should be implemented because “the people have spoken,” though the law may have to be “tweaked” a bit.

After Mayhew said it “must be repealed” and Fredette hit back by saying repeal is unlikely because “you actually have to have the votes to do that” in the Legislature, but that “at the end of the day,” the law will have to be implemented.

LePage has said something similar, though it has been mostly stagecraft to this point, since he has said he would only implement expansion if Democrats agree to fund it on his own virtually unreachable terms. Fredette isn’t going to become an expansion advocate, but his stance was bold among the field.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...