As the late, great White House reporter Helen Thomas once said, “When you’re in the news business, you always expect the unexpected.”

When you’re running for elective office, on the other hand, breaking news can be a real kick in the keister.

“Bucksport mill to close” read the lead headline in Thursday’s Portland Press Herald. The accompanying story – and the many that have followed – chronicled in agonizing detail Verso Paper’s decision to close its mill on the banks of the Penobscot River and, in the process, put more than 500 people out of work.

The news sent a shock wave through Maine’s economy in general and, in particular, through a traditional Maine industry that by most accounts is now in its final death throes.

At the same time, it was a game-changer in a gubernatorial race that is just now kicking into high gear.

Starting this week, absentee ballots will be available for the asking at every municipal clerk’s office in Maine.

And on Wednesday, Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler will square off for the first time in a debate before the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. Local chamber debates also will be held Thursday in Waterville and Friday in Lewiston.

Anyone care to guess what these guys will be talking about?

Take away the Verso Paper shutdown – as well as the recent Chapter 7 bankruptcy announcement by Cate Street Capital, owner of the shuttered Great Northern Paper Mill in East Millinocket – and the upcoming forums would be about as predictable as the fall foliage.

LePage: “I reformed welfare!”

Michaud: “I’m a uniter, not a divider!”

Cutler: “My brain is bigger than their two brains put together!”

Now, in the wake of last week’s devastating news, those and other well-worn talking points have been all but drowned out by what in fact has been the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds all along: their wallets.

Last month, 36 percent of Maine voters polled by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram cited jobs and the economy as far and away the biggest problem facing Maine heading into this election. The next two were welfare, at 13 percent, and LePage, at 8 percent.

Thus, as the entire state grimaces at the prospect of hundreds more Maine families heading into the winter without a paycheck, the three gubernatorial candidates have no choice. From now until Nov. 4, it really is about the economy.

LePage did himself no favors Wednesday when he told the media he never saw the Verso bombshell coming.

“I learned about the closure of the Bucksport mill late this afternoon,” LePage said in a statement just hours after the company’s announcement. “I have spoken to Verso Paper CEO David Paterson and I continue to receive information.”

Note the absence of LePage’s customary bombast. It’s hard to shoot your mouth off when you’ve just been punched in the gut.

Michaud, himself a former Great Northern Paper worker, said he understands first-hand “the challenges and fears these workers are facing” and promised that “if we give these hardworking men and women the tools and support they need, I have no doubt we’ll emerge stronger.”

The congressman’s optimism is admirable, although you can’t help but wonder how many soon-to-be-unemployed workers in Bucksport share it.

Cutler, noting that worldwide demand for paper has been in steady decline for the last five or six years, justifiably wondered “whether our state’s leaders did everything they possibly could to ensure continued operation of the Bucksport mill.” He also pledged to “help make this facility and its talented workforce a viable part of a new 21st century economy in Maine.”

Again, a laudable goal. Again, far easier said than done.

Friday afternoon, I chatted with Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap about the ins and outs of Maine’s absentee voting process.

While just over 9,300 applications for absentee ballots already had been received as of late last week, Dunlap said, it’s too soon to tell whether early-absentee voting will account for almost a quarter of the total turnout as it did – much to the dismay of a late-surging Cutler – in 2010.

“It tends to ramp up really fast as you get to the month of October,” Dunlap said. “Believe it or not, right now people are not thinking about the election. The only inkling they have that there is an election is that they see all that litter (campaign signs) along the side of the road.”

This newspaper’s recent poll suggests otherwise: As of Sept. 25, 74 percent of those surveyed said they were either “extremely interested” or “very interested” in this fall’s election.

Either way, last week’s blockbuster headlines have me revisiting my observation back in early August that gubernatorial debates, for all the hand-wringing that goes into them, are more often than not “about as interesting as a squawking seagull.”

This week’s debates, along with three more planned for later in October, no longer promise to be one part self-promotion, two parts stick-it-to-your-opponents and three parts blah-blah-blah …

Rather, they offer a rare opportunity to watch and listen as the three guys who want to be Maine’s next governor react to a real crisis, unfolding in real time, involving real Maine people and inflicting real pain on communities that deserve far better.

So if you’re already paying attention, fellow Mainers, pull up your seat – things just got a whole lot more interesting. And if you’re just tuning in, you arrived just in time.

The polls are now officially open.

The Maine governor’s race is in its home stretch.

And the news – heartbreaking as it may be – keeps coming.

Welcome to October. Expect the unexpected.

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