The maneuvering continued Tuesday among the three candidates for Maine governor over who would participate in campaign debates.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage remained the wild card, after he reiterated that his participation hinges on whether Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud denounces a third-party television ad attacking him on Social Security.

Michaud said at a press conference in Portland that he would not denounce the ad, because the claim is true. If LePage chooses not to participate in the debates, Michaud said he would debate independent Eliot Cutler head-to-head – a reversal of his previous position.

For all of the jockeying and jostling, independent political experts say debates fire up a candidate’s base, rather than move undecided voters.

The value of debates depends on whether the questions push candidates beyond their talking points, so voters can assess how they handle themselves, said Andrew Smith, associate professor of practice in political science at the University of New Hampshire.

Without challenging a candidate to move beyond repeated sound bites, debates simply become a NASCAR race, Smith said.

“For the most part, they’re not that exciting and people just go around and around,” Smith said. “What you’re watching for is the crash. You want to see whether someone really cracks up during the debate.”

Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine Farmington, agreed that gaffes have the most impact. Beyond that, voters get a sense of “command” by seeing candidates being questioned standing side-by-side, he said.

“People are more interested in your general command rather than what you said,” Melcher said.

Public polls show Michaud holding a slight lead, though within the margin of error, over LePage, with Cutler in a distant third. With his level of support holding steady at around 38 percent, LePage has acknowledged that his best chance at another four-year term in the Blaine House is for Cutler to rise in the polls. Cutler believes debates will help him do exactly that, and he has repeatedly challenged his opponents to more debates.

The latest flare-up about debates began on Monday, when LePage said he wouldn’t debate Michaud because of a television ad that was produced and aired by the Maine Forward political action committee. The ad seizes on a June 25 press release about a report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis that LePage’s office issued while the governor was on a trade mission in China.

The release said income in the 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 Obamacare health exchanges.

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

LePage has accused the Portland Press Herald, which first published the statement, of distorting his words, and he has since gone to great lengths to clarify the statement in interviews, a campaign video, automated calls to voters and direct mailers.

Michaud repeated the attack at his Tuesday press conference, saying the governor’s initial release was the truth and that he attempted to take it back after someone told him Maine was the oldest state in the nation.

LePage campaign spokesman Alex Willette said it was “absolutely absurd” to suggest the governor wasn’t aware of the state’s older population.

Michaud said he would attend the debates already scheduled next month and that he expected LePage would keep his commitment as well.

The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce is scheduled to host the first of six gubernatorial debates on Oct. 8 at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland. Chamber CEO Chris Hall said he hasn’t received any formal notice from LePage saying he would not attend.

While Willette said in a written statement that the governor was “still evaluating” his participation in debates, the Michaud campaign released an email from the Mid-Coast Chamber of Commerce saying that the LePage campaign confirmed Tuesday that he would take part in an Oct. 9 debate.

Cutler said at a press conference at his campaign headquarters in Portland that he welcomed a chance to debate Michaud.

“Maine voters are fed up with this silly, stupid game of chicken. They are insulted by it. And I think Mike has finally figured that out,” said Cutler, who has pushed for earlier and more debates. “I’m glad Mike is finally willing to debate me because this election is not just about getting rid of Paul LePage. It’s about who is the best candidate to lead this state forward.”

Some observers believe that if Michaud fares badly in a one-on-one debate with Cutler, that could erode Michaud’s narrow lead over LePage and hand the Republican the Blaine House. But Melcher, the UMaine Farmington professor, said Michaud’s reversal was the right move.

“I think (Michaud) has to prove he can stand up and prove he can do that,” Melcher said of debating Cutler. “I think (Michaud) goes in with people not expecting much from him.”

Ronald Schmidt Jr, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, said research shows that debates are more important in mobilizing a candidate’s base of support, rather than making up the minds of undecided voters. That could be a deciding factor in a midterm election, when Republicans tend to have a higher turnout.

“That’s big, especially a midterm election that’s as close as our gubernatorial race is right now,” Schmidt said.