When Gov. Paul LePage held the celebratory kickoff for his re-election bid in November, his campaign tried a nifty rhetorical shift. The focus of the event, and for much of the messaging that followed, was to portray the governor as a man of action. Deeds, not words.

The goal was to shift the focus away from LePage’s many verbal missteps, which have hovered over his first three years in office. Some of the supporters sported bumper stickers that read: “I’d rather have a governor who puts a foot in his mouth than a hand in my pocket.”

Democrats have shifted their rhetoric to counter this tack. During a lecture/stump speech at the University of Southern Maine on Friday, the Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, said LePage “makes headlines for his rough talk, but his actions are more dangerous than his words.”

The comment aligns with ongoing efforts by Democrats to raise questions about LePage’s management abilities. They’ve even tried to discredit LePage as a chief executive. Democratic legislative staff and operatives within the party have deployed a Twitter hashtag, #badceo.

Independent candidate Eliot Cutler has become hip to the trend. Last week, he went directly after LePage and the seemingly endless controversies at the Department of Health and Human Services. His campaign promised that “heads would roll” if things such as grant manipulation and document destruction took place in his administration.

This is a bit like New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, you know, back when he was winning championships: Take away your opponent’s strengths; let his weaknesses beat him.

There are plenty of Democrats who already think LePage is a bad CEO. They probably aren’t the target of this line of messaging. It’s moderate Republicans and independents, some of whom may not like what the governor says but are open to some of his ideas and take-charge brand.

With all but one outlier poll showing a white-knuckle race, and almost no change in about nine months of campaigning, Michaud – and definitely Cutler – will need those voters in November.

WORKERS’ COMP POLITICS

Last week’s Portland Press Herald story about the kerfuffle over Maine Workers’ Compensation Board director Paul Sighinolfi’s decision to yank an injury claims adjudicator from cases involving the NewPage mill in Rumford after the company complained featured common combatants: the LePage administration and organized labor.

While fights over collective bargaining rights have captured the most headlines, the two sides have engaged in bitter disputes over workers’ compensation.

The LePage administration recently touted the fact that Maine businesses will see an average 7.7 percent decrease in the workers’ compensation insurance premium, reducing costs to businesses by $15.2 million. The administration attributed the savings to reforms passed by the Republican-led Legislature in 2012.

Labor advocates, however, contend that the 2013 premium reductions have come at the expense of workers. Among the 2012 reforms was the termination of a wage-replacement benefits provision, which offset wage reductions for injured workers who were forced to take lower-paying jobs.

The policy debate also mobilizes both political parties and their respective base constituencies: the business interests traditionally aligned with Republicans, and labor interests associated with Democrats.

Organized labor will be heavily involved in the Democratic bid to unseat LePage in November. Last month, the political action committee for the steelworkers union contributed $300,000 to the Maine Democratic Party – an unusually large donation at this point in the election cycle.

Local 900 in Rumford – the union voicing the loudest objections to Sighinolfi’s decision – is a member of the steelworkers union.

SMALL (LEGAL) WORLD

Pop quiz: What does the law firm representing Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention deputy director Christine Zukas in a whistleblower lawsuit have in common with the law firm that initiated the federal investigation into the governor’s lunch meeting with unemployment hearing officers in 2013?

Answer: Everything. It’s the same law firm, Johnson & Webbert LLP.

Granted, the lawyer defending Pinette is not David Webbert, the lawyer who questioned the propriety of the 2013 Blaine House lunch meeting. But they’re partners.

Last year, Webbert questioned the activities of LePage and one of his appointees. This year, Phillip Johnson is defending Zukas, another member of the LePage administration, against allegations of harassment.

DON’T FORGET THE LEGISLATURE

Most of the focus this election year will be on the race for the Blaine House. However, this election also will decide which party controls the Legislature.

Outside interest groups, which helped break spending records here in 2012, have not forgotten. One of the larger ones, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, spent big dollars to help Democrats retake the Legislature from Republican control.

Last week, the DLCC identified the battle for Maine’s House and Senate races as “competitive” contests, a signal that the group will be active here once again. The Republican State Leadership Committee has been active the past two legislative elections, taking Democrats by surprise with a $400,000 ad dump late in the campaign.

Both groups will be players in 2014. After all, when it comes to television and radio ad rates, Maine has proven to be a cheap investment for influential groups.

This story was updated at 5:04 p.m. on Monday to note that Johnson is now representing Christine Zukas in the CDC whistleblower case.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 620-7016 or at:

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Twitter: @stevemistler