The four Democrats running for Maine’s open U.S. Senate seat gathered at a Portland Regional Chamber meeting recently to talk about small business, health care, taxes and energy.

But first, they had to confront the inevitable question: How are you going to beat Angus King?

“I asked for questions from the audience, and it was the question I got from everybody,” moderator Chris Hall said apologetically.

The former governor and independent Senate candidate has been a recurring topic at Democratic and Republican gatherings. And the Democratic candidates showed Tuesday there are different ideas about how best to take on the frontrunner.

1. Go after King’s record. State Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, is in this camp.

Dill said she would compare her record of creating jobs and promoting economic justice with King’s veto of a minimum wage increase, opposition to an expansion of family medical leave and policies that weakened labor unions and left the state in a fiscal mess.

“When it comes to a record, I don’t believe Gov. King has a record,” Dill said.

2. Stay positive. Former Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap made the case for this strategy, saying Maine voters want to hear how he would restore prosperity, not negative attacks against the other guy. Dunlap said he would have run against Sen. Olympia Snowe the same way.

“People were far more interested in their future than they were in her past,” he said.

3. Exploit weaknesses. State Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland, said King benefits from the frustration with hyper-partisanship in Washington, but he would focus the discussion on the influence of wealthy business interests. (King happens to be a wealthy businessman.)

“The degree to which private, wealthy vested interests dominate politics today hasn’t been addressed yet,” Hinck said. “We need to focus on that.”

4. Offer something completely different. Businessman Benjamin Pollard described himself as an unabashed, starry-eyed idealist with no political experience who could inspire new voters.
“Bring people into the political process who are not in the process now,” he said.

5. Cross your fingers. No one actually proposed this strategy, although Dunlap did point out that King has still not officially entered the race. As an independent, King isn’t required to file a nomination petition until June 1.

LMF bond?

Gov. Paul LePage will be very busy this week reviewing the dozens of bills passed by lawmakers at the end of the session, including five bond bills that total more than $95 million.

Supporters of the Land for Maine’s Future bond said the $5 million earmarked for that program will help conserve natural resources and create jobs. Five times already, dating back to 1987, voters in Maine have approved spending money on the program.

“The needs for LMF couldn’t be more important than they are today,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine is on board, too, and even asking for more money to be spent. David Trahan, SAM’s executive director, said the alliance wants to ensure access for hunters and fishermen, and preserve important habitat for things such as wild brook trout.

Now that it passed the Legislature, the big question is whether Page will come on board.

As a candidate in 2010, LePage said he would not support a Land for Maine’s Future bond, at least not the $9.75 million that was on the ballot that year.

Here’s what we reported back then:

When it comes to the Land for Maine’s Future program, all candidates but LePage said they would support a bond on the November ballot that calls for the state to borrow $9.75 million for the program. LePage said he supports the other bond on the ballot, which is $5 million for new dental services in Maine.

“All other bond issues are putting shackles on the next governor,” he said.

Americans Elect

Americans Elect, the well-funded national organization attempting to draft a bipartisan presidential ticket, has spent the last two years attempting to secure ballot access in all 50 states.

Now, after spending more than $20 million and a place on the ballot in 27 states, including Maine, the organization is ready to call it quits.

The problem: AE can’t find a presidential candidate.

The organization has been unable to find a candidate with enough support to qualify for its upcoming online convention. The group had a self-imposed deadline of Monday at 11:59 p.m. to complete its nominating process, but no candidate reached the 10,000-click — and 1,000 in 10 separate states — support threshold.

Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, who failed to gain traction in the GOP primary, came the closest. The group had hoped to attract more high-profile candidates, but Darry Sragow, a candidate recruiter, told ABC News that many would-be candidates were wary of joining the AE ticket.

“If you have invested your lifetime in politics as a Democrat or a Republican, you know very well that if you take the Americans Elect path or any similar path, really there’s no turning back,” Sragow said.

“You are going to face the reality that you will find yourself suddenly not welcome in your party.”

Supporters of a bipartisan ticket are disappointed that the AE approach appears to be a failure. Others aren’t so disappointed. Some Republicans and Democrats had feared that a viable AE presidential ticket could hurt the established parties during what could be a very close race between President Barack Obama and the presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Others, meanwhile, didn’t like that AE used its a 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to hide the identities of its well-heeled donors.

Double-dip bill dead

A bill that would have eased restrictions put in place last year for those who retire and return to work died in the House and Senate this week.

With little fanfare or debate, the measure was voted “ought not to pass” or, as the online bill tracking system puts it: “Placed in the Legislative Files. (DEAD)”

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, said earlier this year that she was concerned that teachers were getting hurt by the new restrictions because they could only make 75 percent of what the position pays if they retire and come back. The teachers’ union argues that in at least some cases, widows are forced to come back to work after their husband dies because they can’t make it financially.

In the end, Republicans started pulling away, saying they wanted to wait to judge the impact of the change put in place last fall. It’s really meant to target superintendents and their much larger salaries, not teachers. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can check out our double-dipping database to see which state workers and educators have retired to collect their pensions and come back work to earn a salary.

State House Bureau writers John Richardson, Susan Cover and Steve Mistler contributed to this column.

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