In a debate that included several heated exchanges, the four candidates hoping to replace Republican Gov. Paul LePage squared off on key issues such as abortion, climate change, sexual harassment and health care Wednesday evening at the University of New England’s Portland campus.

Sitting side by side, Republican Shawn Moody and Democrat Janet Mills sparred over climate change.

Mills implied that Moody was a “climate change denier,” an assertion that Moody rejected. Independents Alan Caron and Terry Hayes, meanwhile, said they had no doubt the climate was changing and it was affecting Maine, its economy and its people.

A question about energy spurred the lively exchange between Mills and Moody.

Mills pledged to pursue a policy “that weans us off of fossil fuels as soon as possible,” and then went after Moody over his position on climate change. In particular, Mills seized on Moody’s comment at a Rockland fishermen’s forum that it was important for the government not overreact to climate change and help industries navigate the challenge.

“I believe in renewable energy and, by the way, I believe in climate change,” Mills said. “I don’t believe the Blaine House should become home to a climate change denier.”

In response, Moody pointed to his company’s work with Maine Audubon at the organization’s Falmouth property on a major renewable-energy project, and said his company has “an incredible” reputation on the environment and renewable energy.

“For anyone to say in this day and age that anyone is in denial of climate change, that is such a ridiculous statement. It doesn’t even merit a response,” Moody said to cheers from his supporters but jeers from the Mills crowd.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Janet Mills answers a question during Wednesday night’s debate. To her left are independents Alan Caron and Terry Hayes, and to her right is Republican Shawn Moody.

In a June debate with Republican candidates before he won his party’s primary, Moody said he did not believe human beings were causing climate change.

After the moderator pushed Mills to identify Moody as the person she was suggesting was a climate-change denier, Moody accused Mills of dodging the question, saying, “Thanks for getting that out of Janet, she kind of walked around the barn on that one.”

But Moody also took heat for not fully answering questions, at one point being heckled from the audience for not answering a question precisely on what state resources he would deploy to help lower student debt in Maine.

Hayes said she would focus on helping students not get into debt in the first place by being ready to succeed in college when they got there. Moody said he would put more emphasis on allowing young people to decide to work in “blue-collar” jobs and with their hands, instead of being pushed toward expensive college degrees that they may not finish or that may not provide a pathway to well-paid employment. He also said private companies should be responsible for student loan forgiveness programs, noting many already offer hiring bonuses of up to $10,000.

Democratic candidate Janet Mills reacts as Republican candidate Shawn Moody offers a rebuttal to one of her statements during the debate. Polls show the two virtually even in the race.

Mills said she would develop programs to provide income tax relief to workers who have degrees and were returning to work in Maine, and would give tax incentives to companies that help workers with their student debt.

The candidates took strong stances on abortion rights. Mills, Caron and Hayes said they would protect a woman’s right to an abortion, and Moody said he does not believe taxpayer funds should be spent on abortion.

The candidates were asked their positions on two abortion-related issues. The first was whether they would support attempts to impose tougher regulatory standards on abortion clinics, a move in conservative states that critics contend is an overt attempt to force clinics out of business. The second bill, which has been discussed in Maine, would allow physician assistants to perform early term abortions without a doctor present with the use of pharmaceuticals.

Hayes acknowledged that she would need to research the issues more before taking a position, but said: “I would have to be persuaded in a significant way that the standards we have now are inadequate, and I’m not clear that they are.”

Caron gave perhaps the most passionate response, saying he doesn’t understand why conservatives push for government to “get off our backs,” but are “right in the middle” when it comes to abortion. Caron said he would not support any measures that interfered with a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.

Moody said he believes physicians should be involved in abortion procedures, but he would need to do more research on the regulatory standards issue.

The crowd of about 700 people watches the Maine gubernatorial debate Wednesday night at the University of New England in Portland.

“The other thing I would not support is taxpayer dollars going toward abortion,” Moody said.

Mills, on the other hand, said the tighter regulatory standards imposed in other states “are clearly intended solely to limit the right of access to safe and legal abortions, and I would oppose them.”

But on the issue of physician assistants performing abortions, Mills said she helped to draft the measure to increase access to health care – not just abortions – in rural Maine. But those decisions should be made by licensing boards, Mills said.

About 700 people attended the event, co-sponsored by the Portland Press Herald and UNE, in one of the most high-energy appearances of the candidates, who have appeared together more frequently in recent weeks.

While the fundraising and advertising race is heating up, the 2018 governor’s race has been relatively low-key so far.

The candidates were also asked if they would hire somebody to their staff who was facing a credible allegation of sexual harassment or assault.

Mills said she would issue an executive order on her first day as governor saying she would never interfere with investigations or findings of the Maine Human Rights Commission, unlike LePage, who has injected himself into several cases involving discrimination charges against businesses in Maine.

Supporters of Shawn Moody get their message across before the debate.

Moody pointed to his company’s policy and practices and noted he seeks to empower his female co-workers at all levels of his business, and said as governor he would fully vet any possible employees, including making sure they were not felons. Both Caron and Hayes said they would disqualify an applicant if they learned of a credible allegation of sexual harassment or assault.

Both Caron and Hayes also spoke to the #MeToo movement, with Hayes saying it was imperative that “we raise our sons to have respect for women.”

In a final question, the candidates were asked which of their opponents they would bring into their new administration were they to win.

Hayes said she believed Mills would run again to be the state’s attorney general, the position Mills currently holds, and that she would consider putting both Caron and Moody into her administration. Hayes also said her husband would be the state’s first “first dude.”

Supporters of Janet Mills make their feelings known before the debate.

Mills at first said she wasn’t prepared to say who she would hire to her administration were she to win, but later said she could see all three of her opponents serving on a transition team.

Moody did not commit to putting any of his opponents in his potential Cabinet, but credited them with “running for the right reason.”

Caron said he would ask all three of his opponents to join his team, and quipped that the first thing they would do is take a Florida vacation together in the RV he’s been using as a mobile campaign office.

“There are no demons on this panel. As much as some people would like to persuade you there are, there are not,” he said.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6331 or at:

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