Paul LePage and Janet Mills had their first debate on Tuesday night.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and Republican Paul LePage shake hands Tuesday following a debate at the Franco Center in Lewiston. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The long-awaited first debate between Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday and will be most remembered for a drawn-out and confusing exchange that led the Republican challenger to eventually say he would veto a 15-week abortion ban.

LePage took a more aggressive tack that seemed to confirm his posture as the underdog, calling Mills a “liar” early on while he was the one who had to be checked on facts. The incumbent was more even and seemed to be in a posture of getting through the debate unscathed, which she did aside from a key dodge or two.

Here are the key moments from the Maine Public and Portland Press Herald debate at the Franco Center in Lewiston, which also featured independent longshot Sam Hunkler.

LePage was on the attack early but stretched to distance himself from past stances. The former governor was caught on his heels a few times, notably about midway through the debate when he was asked if he would accept the results of this election.

He said he “absolutely” would and that he had “never rejected any election, including the 2020 presidential election.” But LePage called that election “stolen” just after it was called for President Joe Biden. At the debate, he said Biden won the election but that he was “not sure who’s running the country,” repeating Republican concerns about the president’s age.

His first feisty exchange with Mills came when she said LePage’s signature 2011 tax cuts were paid for by increases in sales and property taxes. It is less direct than she portrayed it, but the cuts increased the state’s reliance on the sales tax and property tax offsets were reduced.

The former governor fired back by saying the sales tax had not increased during his time as governor. That is not true, although it only went from 5 percent to 5.5 percent in a 2013 budget that was passed over LePage’s veto. His comments were notable because he later floated tax overhauls that would have increased and broadened the sales tax to phase out the income tax, but they never passed. He still wants to do so, but he is more vague on offsets.

“Right now, there are 10 states working to remove the income tax,” LePage said. “We need to phase it out for the long haul.”

Another exchange came about 10 minutes later on immigration. Mills said LePage had “joined” former President Donald Trump’s 2017 ban on immigration from Muslim countries. It was perhaps inartful language from Mills, but he clearly supported it in a tweet at the time. That’s when called the governor a liar and said he had never joined Trump on immigration policy.

Mills was mostly ready to parry many of her opponent’s lines. The governor looked well-prepared early on. After LePage addressed his key issue of high costs and inflation by citing a report noting Maine’s food costs are third-highest among states, she shot back by saying they were also third-highest during his administration.

She also took command of the abortion section of the debate, marked by a halting exchange between LePage and the moderators pressing him on what kinds of abortion limits he would support. Before he clearly said he would veto a measure outlawing abortion after 15 weeks, he said he did not understand questions on the topic, allowing Mills an opening.

“I understand the question. I would not let such law become effective,” she said. “My veto pen will stand in the way of any restrictions on the right to abortion.”

The governor was made uncomfortable at times. Her most notable dodge of the night came in response to a question on Republican attacks on her administration, which in May removed an online lesson from a state website that focused on teaching gender identity to kindergarten students. She called it an attempt to “deflect” from LePage’s education record.

The loose LePage we saw in 2014 debates was not there under more pressure. LePage was a frustrating debate opponent for Democrats eight years ago. In his first debate of that cycle, he famously high-fived independent Eliot Cutler. He made faces and laughed derisively when Democrat Mike Michaud spoke, underscoring his winning “actions, not words” reelection pitch that implicitly asked voters to set aside his history of bombast.

The former governor was not out of control on Tuesday night, greeting Mills when he took the stage and shaking her hand on the way out. But he was not loose, either. He was bothered by Mills’ attacks on his record and had trouble at times getting back to his messages while being a clear underdog in the race. His debate highlight was probably in his closing statement.

“Ask yourself, are you off better today than you were four years ago?” he asked. “Is your grocery bill lower today than it was four years ago? Is your electricity bill lower today than it was four years ago?”

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...