Maine gubernatorial candidate Democrat Janet Mills, far left, speaks during a debate with fellow candidates Independent Alan Caron, second from left, Independent Teresea Hayes, and Republican Shawn Moody, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — It took more than 45 minutes into the first televised debate in Maine’s gubernatorial race, but Republican nominee Shawn Moody and Democrat Janet Mills sparred a bit on Wednesday night over his move earlier this month not to release personal tax returns.

The race to replace the term-limited Gov. Paul LePage is a toss-up that has already drawn $7.2 million in outside spending to largely blanket Maine airwaves with negative ads, but the candidates themselves have stayed focused on issues in a handful of debates so far.

They largely did on Wednesday, but the jabs between the two front-runners came toward the end of a debate at the Augusta Civic Center hosted by WCSH, WLBZ and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce that was focused on the economy, environment and education.

Mills, the attorney general, looked again to demonstrate command of government’s finer details.

Moody — whose campaign is run by many of the Republican governor’s allies — at times demonstrated how he’ll differ from LePage as Democrats try to paint him as a doppelganger.

The two independents in the race — State Treasurer Terry Hayes and consultant Alan Caron — tried to cut into support for the party candidates with a mix of positions across the political spectrum, with Hayes backing a statewide teachers contract that LePage has called for and Caron calling for smaller government, while both want to expand Medicaid.

However, Mills’ only real hit on Moody was more personal. While answering a question about transparency, she hit the Republican for being the only candidate who didn’t release five years of personal tax returns to the Bangor Daily News, which estimated that Moody has business and real estate interests that add up to at least $48.5 million in total value.

“I’m waiting for Mr. Moody to provide his tax returns so we can all see that as a first act of transparency,” Mills said. “I think it’s important that we look at his finances just as we’ve looked at our finances, too.”

Moody cited his partly employee-owned business as the reason for not releasing his returns and voluntarily provided the BDN with the type of income disclosure that is required by state law when a governor is elected, saying the tax returns could reveal “confidential business information.”

He then dug at the Democrat’s move to ask for an extension on her 2017 income taxes, saying they were “probably a simple W2” and she “couldn’t file a simple tax return on time.”

However, Moody shifted somewhat toward moderation during the debate. During the Republican primary, he rejected the scientific consensus that humans are contributing to climate change. But on Wednesday, he said human activity at least contributes to it.

He noted that his company has been named an environmental leader by the state, and he said he’d revive the Carbon Challenge, a voluntary program that encouraged businesses to reduce emissions that began in 2004 under then-Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat.

Mills has released a climate plan that includes setting a goal of reducing pollution by 80 percent by 2030, and said she would focus on “prevention and mitigation. Hayes said Maine must use “tax policy to herd behavior in the direction” of mitigating climate change. Caron, who wants to make Maine energy independent within 30 years, said he would “pull people together” on the issue.

The state of the governor’s race is unclear. The only nonpartisan public poll, which was released in August, showed Moody and Mills statistically tied with Hayes and Caron in the low single digits. However, two recent polls archived by FiveThirtyEight — including an internal one for Hayes — gave Mills an edge on Moody. Hayes’ poll said she was still far behind at 10 percent.

There was some room for agreement in the debate as well: All of the candidates professed skepticism of Central Maine Power’s plan to build a massive corridor through Maine to deliver Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts — which LePage backs.

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Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...