Gov. Paul LePage surprised organizers of a long-planned energy forum when he pulled out at the last minute Friday, a move the governor attributed to miscommunication but others called a calculated political maneuver.

LePage and his opponents in the governor’s race, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, had all previously agreed to speak and answer questions from a group of more than 250 members of Maine’s energy and environmental sectors gathered at the University of Southern Maine.

However, when LePage’s campaign staff arrived at the event early Friday and learned that the governor would actually be sharing the stage with Michaud and Cutler, LePage refused to participate.

“There was a misunderstanding in the format. We thought we were going into a format and at the last minute there was a different format,” LePage said later Friday morning at another event in Portland. “You know, you’ve got to keep the integrity of the process. If we set a format, we have to stick to what we agreed to.

“The change of format was we would have no interaction with the other candidates and we’d come in and  give them our plan and move out,” he continued. “Then they said we’d all be sitting together. We have five debates. We don’t need another one today.”

Both Michaud and Cutler, however, said they were not at all confused about the process.

Jeff Marks, executive director of the Environmental Energy and Technology Council of Maine, or E2Tech, which organized the event, also said that if the governor or his staff was confused, he’s not sure why.

“I think this is probably political strategy,” Marks said. “I am disappointed, though, and I hope the candidates have an opportunity to get together and talk about these issues.”

Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the attendees were generally confused about what was going on, particularly because the stage was empty for the first half hour.

“It’s unfortunate that (the governor) would diss people in this way,” he said. “These are busy people who took time out of their day.”

The forum had been planned for months. It was called Heat of the Moment, and was part of a morning-long presentation that included state energy officials talking about how Mainers can keep warm this winter in the face of high energy costs.

According to emails from E2Tech to the campaigns, the candidates were told that they would each have a block of a half hour to address the audience. They could give a speech and then take questions with the remaining time. The emails indicate that the candidates were free to attend as much of the event as they wished but were really only responsible for their half-hour block.

Marks said there was no discussion about the seating arrangement because he didn’t think it would be an issue.

Michaud, who spoke to reporters after addressing the attendees, said he shared disappointment about the governor pulling out but said, “that’s his prerogative.”

David Farmer, a senior campaign adviser to Michaud, said the congressman expected there would be some overlap among the candidates’ remarks.

Cutler apologized to the audience prior to his speech and said afterwards that his understanding of the event was the candidates would be on stage together.

“All I know is: the governor refused to be on stage with two other candidates,” he said, adding that LePage and his campaign employed a similar strategy in the 2010 race. “It’s an insult to Maine voters.”

Alex Willette, LePage’s campaign spokesman, said their correspondence with E2Tech prior to the event was that, “no interaction between the candidates was requested or required.”

Although the campaign has not acknowledged the politics of LePage’s decision to pull out, this is not the first time LePage has done something like this.

Last month, Gov. LePage backed out of a forum hosted by the Agricultural Council of Maine, citing a scheduling conflict. In 2010, about a week before the election, LePage dropped out of a debate hosted by MPBN, saying that he would rather meet with voters. For several weeks near the end of the 2010 campaign, LePage public appearances were few.

It’s worth noting that Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell dropped out of a pair of events in 2010 because they didn’t feature all five candidates.

There is some debate about whether LePage actually arrived at the event Friday morning.

Marks said he spoke with LePage’s campaign manager, Scott Van Orman, and his scheduler, Lauren LePage, but did not actually see the governor. Others in attendance said they heard LePage was waiting in a vehicle in the parking lot attached to Hannaford Hall on the USM campus.

LePage’s name-tag was on a table outside the hall and a table that had been set up for LePage campaign materials was empty.

Marks said forum organizers tried to work through the governor’s concerns.

At one point, before Michaud had arrived, Cutler was sitting on stage alone. After hearing LePage’s concerns, Marks said he asked Cutler if he would mind vacating the stage while the governor spoke. Cutler obliged, Marks said, but the LePage campaign still refused to participate. By that point, he was already on his way to another event, according to his campaign.

After the confusion, organizers attempted to bring the forum back on track, with Michaud addressing the crowd, followed by Cutler. The two men took turns at a podium, behind a table with three chairs and microphones.

Marks said his organization has hosted dozens of forums featuring candidates and has never had anything like this happen.

Staff writer Tux Turkel contributed to this story

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