Gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody speaks at the Republican Convention, Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Eight years ago, Shawn Moody ran for the Blaine House with a campaign website that read, “I’m not a liberal. I’m not a conservative.” His new site calls him “a lifelong conservative.”

The Gorham businessman has gone from a self-proclaimed “political virgin” and also-ran independent hopeful to the front-runner in the first poll of the 2018 Republican primary to replace Gov. Paul LePage after enrolling in the party in October with members of the governor’s team behind him.

That alone is a feat for the affable 58-year-old with a thick Maine accent and a penchant for self-deprecation. He may resemble your father or uncle — if he was a self-made millionaire convinced in part by a lot of important people that he would make a great governor.

All of this has put a target on Moody in the Republican primary. His opponents single out his political inexperience, his recent shift to the party and some inconsistent or at least unclear stances over the years on matters crucial to the conservative base.

Ask Moody about his new party status and he gives two answers. The first is that he has always lived by Republican values, including “religious convictions” and “private enterprise” as an outsider candidate and the owner of Moody’s Collision Centers, which he founded at age 17.

He also said “we have a two-party system.” He said U.S. Sen. Angus King told him in a pre-campaign meeting that “times have changed” since the independent won his first of two terms as governor in 1994. (King’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

“I might be fairly new to the party, but I can tell you right now, I will die as a Republican and you can print that because I’m not here today, gone tomorrow,” Moody said in an interview. “You look at my life. We make a commitment and stand by it.”

That could read as a shift from a candidate whose most memorable 2010 debate line was, “The party’s over.” In 2010, Moody won 5 percent of votes after putting $1 million into his campaign, which only began that June.

Dennis Bailey, a Democratic operative and former King staffer who ran Moody’s 2010 campaign, said voters were ultimately “mystified” by Moody then, though he is “as honest as the day is long.”

To Bailey, running as a Republican makes Moody look like the kind of politician that he campaigned against then and now. Moody has now hired LePage strategist Brent Littlefield. Lauren LePage, the governor’s daughter, is his spokeswoman.

“I personally think it was a mistake,” Bailey said. “It sort of shows he’s more interested in winning than getting that philosophy out that he talked about.”

Moody is talking about many of same things that he talked about then. One 2010 ad said he would “change welfare to workfare.” He discusses governing from a high view, saying he’d drive accountability with a mantra of “if we can’t measure it, we’re not going to fund it.”

But his campaign has yielded few specific planks. Moody is light on policy. He favors a merger of the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Maine Department of Transportation, which LePage proposed last year. It was rejected out of hand by a legislative panel after the authority’s director said it “would not make sense on multiple levels.”

Moody has been targeted in recent primary debates particularly by the two legislators in the field, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, the latter of whom called out Moody’s apparent pro-abortion rights stance in 2010.

In a radio interview then, Moody said people’s choices on abortion are “up to them to make” and he wouldn’t push a “personal or social agenda.” Now, he says he has always been “pro-life” and is voicing it because he realizes “people want to know and they need to know.”

Like most Republicans, Moody has been critical of recent Maine referendum questions, including the one that enshrined ranked-choice voting. Mason has circulated a clip from a 2010 debate where a puzzled Moody says he backs instant-runoff voting — another name for the method.

After that, Moody’s campaign released a statement saying the question “was not relevant to the debate in Maine about job creation and taxes” and that Moody wasn’t focused on it. In an interview, Moody admitted he “didn’t really understand” the question then.

One of Moody’s biggest boosters is conservative talk radio host Ray Richardson of Westbrook, who isn’t worried about his political inexperience because “he’s clearly a leader” who “knows how to build a good organization.”

Richardson said Moody’s likability and business background could make him a widely popular figure in Maine and that he is the right person to guard LePage’s legacy in part because he’s different than the governor.

“You know I love the governor, but the governor can be bombastic and that’s not Shawn,” he said.

He still has Republicans to sell. Former Cumberland County Republican Committee Chairman Eric Lusk of Harpswell, who supports former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, said it is fair to say Moody’s positions “have shifted to be more appealing in a Republican primary” though he is “the American dream” and hard to dislike.

“I think the bigger question is, ‘How comfortable is he going to be working with people who, for reasons not of his own doing, are going to give him a real hassle?’” Lusk said.

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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...