AUGUSTA – Maine voters eager to see all three gubernatorial candidates together in a live debate may be disappointed.

Gov. Paul LePage told WMTW-TV on Monday that he does not want to share a stage with Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud “from here on out,” and is re-evaluating whether he will participate in six debates in October that the campaigns previously agreed to.

In a statement released by his campaign, the governor said he may back out because an outside group working to elect Michaud accused LePage of describing Social Security and Medicaid as forms of welfare. Instead, LePage said he may debate only independent candidate Eliot Cutler.

“Governor LePage believes that this election must revolve around the issues, not politically fabricated distractions,” Alex Willette, a spokesman for LePage’s campaign, said in a statement. “Michael Michaud has the right to his opinion, he does not have the right to fabricate information. … While Eliot has certainly been critical of the governor, he has stuck to campaigning on issue differences, not fabricating controversy to get elected.”

At issue is a June 25 statement from LePage’s office about an economic report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The statement contended that income in five other New England states appeared to grow faster than income in Maine because the report included in its definition of income “personal transfer receipts,” the term for how the government classifies benefits it administers, including Medicaid, Social Security, and tax-breaks and subsidies administered through the Affordable Care Act health exchanges.

“It doesn’t matter what liberals call these payments, it is welfare, pure and simple,” LePage said in the statement.

LePage has vetoed Medicaid expansion five times, saying the federal government can’t be trusted to continue funding the program.

Michaud’s campaign condemned LePage’s statement the following day, saying that the governor believes Social Security is welfare. LePage vehemently denied the assertion, saying that “Mike Michaud knowingly and deliberately falsified what I said.”

The six debates are scheduled from Oct. 9 to Oct. 21, and some will be televised.

Michaud said in a statement that LePage is looking for a reason to dodge the six debates. He said LePage doesn’t want to defend his “divisive and partisan record” that has hurt Maine’s economy.

Cutler, meanwhile, issued a statement through a spokesperson saying that although he believes voters deserve to see all the candidates debate, he said he will debate “either or both.”

“Throughout this campaign, I have been willing to debate either or both of my opponents anytime, anywhere in Maine,” Cutler said. “ We are all seeking the highest elected office in our state. At the very least the people of Maine should expect us to come together, defend our ideas and debate the issues facing our state. It’s time for LePage and Michaud to stop playing games.”

The Maine AFL-CIO assailed LePage for ducking the debate and the public, saying he is hiding from his “failed, divisive” record.

“Paul LePage has spent four years advocating for policies that harm working people, and now he won’t even face them in person,” said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, which has endorsed Michaud.

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