Four years ago, Democratic congressional hopeful Jared Golden challenged Republican U.S. Rep Bruce Poliquin to take him in debates “at any time, in any place.”

Poliquin, a two-term Republican, refused to go beyond three televised debates that also included two independent challengers.

Golden, who went on to win the 2018 election for Maine’s 2nd District congressional seat, said at the time that Poliquin’s refusal to participate in more debates “shows he has no intention of defending his record in Washington.”

Now, once again, debates are a hot issue on the campaign trail as Poliquin and Golden’s underlings snipe over a debate schedule that might lead to just a single televised showdown on News Center Maine on Sept. 27.

Three other potential debates are up in the air because either Poliquin or Golden has declined to attend or, in the case of one slated for Presque Isle, independent Tiffany Bond may be left out. Golden said Sept. 14 that he won’t participate in any debate that doesn’t include her.

Ben Trundy, campaign manager for Poliquin, said Golden’s team is “attempting to play politics and cry wolf.”

But Bobby Reynolds, a campaign adviser for Golden, said the real problem is that “Bruce can’t hack it” and is trying to dodge all but one of the trio of debates in which Golden is ready to participate.

Golden, a Lewiston resident, has agreed to take part in three televised debates. Poliquin, too, has accepted invitations for three debates. The problem is they’re not the same three.

Bond, a Portland lawyer, has said she will happily show up at any debate.

The most likely second debate is one slated for Oct. 5 in Presque Isle, hosted by two northern Maine television stations and a regional development agency, the Aroostook Partnership. All three candidates have said they want to take part in it.

But Golden threw a potential monkey wrench into the plan when he said he won’t participate unless the host agrees to drop a requirement that Bond show she has at least 15% approval in a reputable poll before she can take the stage with the two major party contenders.

“Having both of my opponents join me on stage for all three debates will ensure that the voters are best served and are not having their choices narrowed for them by politicians or media outlets,” Golden said.

Golden said in a letter to all of the potential debate sponsors that he agreed to three televised debates — just as Poliquin did in 2018 — when all of the qualified candidates were allowed to take the stage together. He said the Presque Isle debate could have all three participating if its sponsors drop the polling requirement and allow Bond to be there.

Golden said the requirement “may make sense in other contexts, but given Maine’s ranked-choice voting law and the fact that three candidates have qualified for the ballot, each of these three candidates will have a meaningful impact on the outcome of the race.”

“As a result, I believe the voters in each of the three broadcast regions in our district deserve to hear from all the candidates who will be on the ballot this fall,” he said. “Disqualifying candidates based upon an arbitrary polling requirement intended for a large field of candidates on a national stage would be a disservice.”

In a ranked-choice election, voters are allowed to rank their choices on the ballot, which means that all three of the candidates have an interest in being the second pick of those voting for somebody else, a matter of consequence for Bond voters, given that she is by far the most likely to be in third place in the initial vote count. That would mean ballots cast for her, or whoever comes in third, would be redistributed to add to the tally of whoever those voters picked second.

In 2018, Bond racked up 6% of the vote, placing third against Poliquin and Golden. In the initial round, Poliquin had a slight lead, but after second-place choices were considered, Golden won narrowly in a victory upheld by a U.S. District Court judge in Bangor appointed by then-President Donald Trump.

In response to Golden’s letter, Trundy issued a statement that said Poliquin’s camp was “surprised to hear that Jared Golden is demanding new guidelines for upcoming debates after he had already agreed to those guidelines and confirmed his participation.”

“Bruce is looking forward to debating Jared and Tiffany at News Center Maine’s debate and anyone who qualifies for the other debates Bruce accepted,” Trundy said. “The criteria for debates were fully established and disseminated to all campaigns” when Poliquin and Golden accepted the Presque Isle invitation.

“Now that Jared Golden is struggling in the polls, and with his campaign, he is trying to dial back and hide his positions from the voters,” Trundy said.

Brent Littlefield, a consultant for Poliquin, said on Twitter that Golden “realizes his campaign is in trouble” and is now trying “to pull out, or change the rules, of the debates with which he agreed to participate.”

Roy Mathews, a spokesman for Poliquin, said on Twitter that he “got whiplash from the change of direction” by Golden about possibly dropping out of a debate he’d already agreed to take part in. Golden, though, is willing to take part in the debate. He said he is only adding a requirement that Bond is there as well.

Maine’s 2nd District race looks awfully familiar

Reynolds called the Republican reaction “incredible” and urged Poliquin to participate with Bond and Golden in three debates: the News Center Maine one, the showdown in Presque Isle and another eyed for Sept. 26 hosted by Maine Public, the Portland Press Herald and the Sun Journal.

The Sept. 26 debate has acceptances from Golden and Bond, but not from Poliquin. Golden’s insistence that each candidate be present would mean that unless Poliquin changes his mind and opts to participate, only Bond would remain.

Reynolds told Poliquin’s campaign staff on Twitter they should “convince Bruce to just say yes and he gets three cracks at the congressman. Just say yes to three debates with all three candidates instead of one. Why is Bruce ducking two out of three?”

A possible fourth debate, to be held in the first half of October and sponsored by Bangor Daily News and WGME, a Portland television station, got positive responses from Poliquin and Bond. It is unclear whether it would take place if Golden continues to decline to participate in it.