AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — To some in Maine, Republican Gov. Paul LePage is hot-headed and divisive. Others say the hard-charging former mayor has found his own way to be effective in a state with a proud independent streak.
In a tight three-way race for governor marked by fights over welfare, health care and jobs, the biggest question often focuses on LePage's abrasive and unconventional leadership style.
"He's an embarrassment," said 69-year-old Barry Zimmerman of Cape Elizabeth, who plans to support either Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud or independent Eliot Cutler. "He's just not respectful."
Such sentiments are widespread in Maine, and for Michaud and Cutler, a former Democrat who lost narrowly to LePage four years ago, they provide an opening on Election Day, Nov. 4.
"To the extent that the governor is simply throwing punches and throwing grenades out there, it doesn't necessarily allow the state to progress and I think that's a concern for people," said Michael Cuzzi, a former Democratic strategist who worked on President Barack Obama's first campaign in New Hampshire.
Since taking office in 2011, LePage has vetoed more bills than any of his recent predecessors, withheld voter-approved bonds to get lawmakers to do what he wants and frequently feuded with Democrats who control the Legislature.
Angered because lawmakers wanted him to get rid of a television screen outside his office, LePage once temporarily moved his working space from the Statehouse to the governor's mansion. The scrolling message on the TV asked "what's the holdup?" on passing some of his priorities.
The governor also has gotten in trouble for his blunt remarks. He criticized a Democratic leader for having "no brains" and a "black heart." He said reading newspapers in Maine is like "paying somebody to tell you lies."
LePage acknowledges that he's not "the best and brightest politician." But he has tried to show throughout the race that — as his campaign's motto reads — "actions speak louder than words."
The former Waterville mayor has accomplished much of what he set out to do after he was elected nearly four years ago: erasing a $400 million hospital debt, eliminating a $1.7 billion state pension system shortfall, passing the largest tax cut in state history, opening Maine's first charter schools and restructuring its welfare system.
"When you have good public policy, I work with you," LePage said during a debate this past week. "If you try to get me to do bad public policy, it goes in the garbage."
The governor, who won a five-person race with 38 percent of the vote four years ago, has been successful in part because he is willing to take political hits in order to do what he feels passionate about, said Bill Beardsley, who ran against LePage in the Republican primary in 2010 before joining his Cabinet.
"He was willing to go down in flames to hold out for something," Beardsley said.
Michaud has framed himself as the anti-LePage, stressing his ability to find common ground and work respectfully with anyone.
The Democrat said Maine needs a governor who can "restore civility to Augusta." LePage's "my-way-or-the-highway" approach has stunted Maine's economic recovery, he said.
He's "too divisive, too wedded to his ideology and too unwilling to listen to anyone who has the audacity to disagree with him," Michaud said.
The former mill worker, polling neck-and-neck with the incumbent, has maintained a relatively low-profile during his six-terms in Congress, focused primarily on veterans' issues.
Republicans question what Michaud has accomplished, noting that he was twice named a member of the "obscure caucus" by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
"It's so easy to work across the aisle when you do nothing," LePage told the Democrat in a debate.
Trailing in the polls, Cutler has tried to separate himself by arguing he would remain "unbought and unbossed" as an independent governor.
"We have had governors who owe so much to groups and or people with very little interests and agendas that they are hamstrung in their ability to work together," said Cutler, a Harvard-educated millionaire and attorney who's largely self-financing his second bid for the office.
He has released detailed policy ideas along with plans for how to pay for them, saying voters deserve to be treated like adults.
While Cutler and Michaud differ on many of their views and leadership style, the two agree that LePage has got to go. The presence of both of them in the race, however, could be LePage's ticket to another four years.
Follow Alanna Durkin at http://www.twitter.com/aedurkin