The closing of the Verso paper mill — and the rhetoric and finger-pointing it inspired among the three candidates for Maine governor — will shadow the campaign for governor as it moves into a series of five critical debates beginning next week.

Four of the five debates among Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler will be held before chambers of commerce — business groups with a keen interest in the reactions and policies the three men have to offer in response to the loss of more than 500 jobs in one of Maine’s iconic manufacturing industries.

The candidates greeted the news Wednesday with words of condolence and empathy for workers at the Bucksport mill. But within 24 hours the rhetoric had shifted to criticism and fingerpointing, with LePage, Michaud and Cutler turning on each other, trading accusations like “he’s done nothing,” “incompetent” and “empty suit.”

The closing and candidate reactions bring into focus economic issues that already top voters’ list of concerns, but had previously been overshadowed by other issues in the yearlong gubernatorial race.

“This is definitely going to have an impact on the race,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “We’re talking about a lot of jobs in an industry that everybody knows has been in decline, but at the same time still remains a big presence in Maine’s economy. For many people, they have historical connections to the paper industry in Maine.”

Kimberly Lindlof, president of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce in Waterville, said the candidates had already received questions for Thursday’s forum, but she wouldn’t be surprised if they talked about Verso’s fate in their opening or closing statements.

Either way, she said the audience will be anxious to hear the candidates’ views on energy costs, a key issue for many businesses and a factor Verso officials cited as a reason for closing.

“The cost of energy is at the top of our list of concerns,” Lindloff said.

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said the closing highlights the need for the state’s leaders to focus on the economy.

“All Mainers are concerned with the unexpected closing of the Bucksport mill,” Connors said. “I think it heightens the concern of how are we going forward to create the opportunity and jobs of the future. It also highlights some of the things within the (paper) industry that we need to keep an eye on.”

There is little that can be done to increase demand for paper, Connors said, while noting there are areas that can be addressed to help the industry.

“But costs that affect the price of the product, the competitiveness of the product — be that energy or other things — are all things we expect to talk about and be a part of the campaign,” he said.

Verso officials have said that the mill will close Dec. 1. The shuttering of the mill, the plight of its workers, and the quest for a new investor will be constant issues during the final 32 days of the campaign. Candidates will be asked to react. At least two of them, LePage and Michaud, will be participants in either setting up state and federal relief for displaced workers or the wooing of an investor.

The campaigns may steer clear of worker relief efforts, but the candidates’ early reaction to the closure suggests the announcement will be followed by a hefty assignment of blame.

The swirl of accusations, claims and counter claims swirled at dueling news conferences Thursday. Michaud unveiled a “six-point plan,” but not before slamming LePage for fixating on welfare and immigration while doing little to help the struggling paper industry.

Coincidentally, one of the congressman’s action plans — the delayed transition to a newer business reimbursement tax program — highlighted the assistance that Verso Paper Corp. has already received from taxpayers. According to Maine Revenue Services, the Memphis, Tennessee-based company and its locations in Jay and Bucksport in fiscal year 2013 received $3.8 million from the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement program, the largest reimbursement in the state. The program is designed to encourage business development by reimbursing companies for the local property taxes paid for industrial equipment.

That’s not all that Verso has received in the way of taxpayer assistance. The company represents 53.8 percent of the Bucksport’s total taxable property. It could be higher. The company benefits from a Tax Increment Financing District, which reduces it taxable property by 53.9 percent from an overall assessment of $755 million. In 2013, Verso’s tax liability was $4.5 million after the return of its TIF taxes, according to the town’s annual report.

The town council extended the TIF in 2010 through 2027. It has also benefited Bucksport Energy, a power plant at the mill that Verso plans to continue operating. While Bucksport Energy valuation increased by $7 million last year, the tax assessment was offset by the TIF.

Verso’s tax benefits highlight the plight of the industry. While state and local policymakers have made numerous attempts to save the mill, none prevented its closure.

That hasn’t stopped the finger-pointing.

On Thursday, LePage and Maine Republican Party officials blamed Michaud for delaying the expansion of natural gas pipeline capacity int New England. The lack of supply during the winter heating season causes electricity price spikes in the region that hurt mills like the one in Bucksport. Republicans claim that Michaud had done little to facilitate the expansion in Congress or pressure Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to end his resistance to the pipeline.

Cutler, in an interview Thursday, noted that LePage’s push for the pipeline is relatively new and followed the governor’s thus far futile three-year quest for cheap power from Hydro-Quebec.

“He’s been talking about Hydro Quebec for years, but not about expanding natural gas capacity of pipelines coming into New England,” Cutler said.

In 2013 the Legislature passed an omnibus energy bill designed to expand natural gas pipeline capacity and save factories an estimated $200 million a year. LePage signed the bill, but not before demanding lawmakers include a provision that reopened the bidding process for an offshore wind energy grant. The Associated Press later published a story using public documents that showed the LePage administration used the provision to derail a Norwegian company’s multimillion-dollar agreement with the state for an offshore wind project.

Cutler, meanwhile, was quick to highlight what he described as the governor’s inability to anticipate the Bucksport closure. While he also has criticized Michaud for not doing enough to expedite the natural gas expansion, he acknowledged that it may have only delayed Verso’s fate. Cutler talked with Verso President David Paterson on Wednesday. He said Paterson told him that the “overwhelming issue” contributing to the mill’s closure is a “the year-on-year decline in worldwide demand for paper.”

“Mr. Paterson told me that we would have shut down eventually regardless of energy costs because of the declining demand,” Cutler said.

So far, the candidates have outlined short-term strategies for Verso and the paper industry. If elected, Michaud said he will convene a summit of stakeholders and industry leaders to discuss the future of the industry. He also said that the state should implement new rules to make sure that businesses that receive tax breaks and incentives for job creation are held accountable.

Cutler hit a similar attack earlier in the week when he accused the LePage administration of “willful ignorance” for supporting a private investment firm that will receive tens of millions of dollars in state credit despite failing to save two paper mills in East Millinocket and a former mill in Millinocket. Cutler described the deal as a “massive scandal.” On Thursday, he said Verso shouldn’t be an excuse to use economic development tools “in bad ways.”

The fallout from Verso could dominate the remainder of the campaign. A Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center showed that a plurality of Mainers (36 percent) believe jobs and the economy is the most important problem facing the state.

LePage’s reelection campaign has frequently touted the state’s declining jobless rate. Democrats have countered that Maine still lags the state in economic recovery and its median wage is the lowest in New England. However, the Verso closure could become a more powerful issue for Mainers.

Brewer, with the University of Maine, said the closure could break a number of ways. LePage could benefit if he’s able to find a buyer and keep the mill open. If not, Michaud and Cutler can remain on the offensive.

“It will be an issue going forward in this campaign cycle,” he said. “What I’m not confident at all in saying is how exactly it’s going to play out.”

Steve Mistler — 791-6345

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Twitter: @stevemistler