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Dec. 17—AUBURN — Friday afternoon, a fellow stood with his daughter in Walmart's parking lot, pointing at the man ringing a bell to raise money for The Salvation Army.
"That's Gov. Baldacci right there," the man said convincingly — and plenty loud enough for the bell ringer to chuckle in response.
For Paul LePage, a two-term former governor, it was just another day on the campaign trail, where not quite everybody knows his name.
LePage said he's been ringing the bell for The Salvation Army during the Christmas season since 1979, one way to repay the charity that helped him out as a poor child growing up in Lewiston.
LePage, a 73-year-old Edgecomb resident, is also gearing up for a long slog on the campaign trail next year as the Republican hopeful tries to unseat Gov. Janet Mills, the Democrat who succeeded him in 2018.
Meanwhile, it doesn't hurt a candidate to get in the holiday spirit at a busy store a week before Christmas.
Most people hustling in and out of the big box store didn't so much as glance at him. Those who did notice him often gave no indication they knew who he was, as they stuffed coins and bills into a red kettle.
But when they did realize that LePage stood there, they often hailed him or promised to vote for him. Only a couple had harsh words, including one who blamed him for President Donald Trump's effort a year ago to subvert the results of the 2020 election. LePage told the guy he didn't know exactly what Trump did.
He said later, though, that it is not true that he was always in lockstep with Trump. At one point, he said, Trump refused to speak to him for eight months because they disagreed on an issue.
LePage said he always thought Trump should have stayed off Twitter and toned down his rhetoric. Plus, he said, he would like to have heard Trump say "we" a lot more often and "I" much less frequently.
LePage and his wife, Ann, said their Christmases are always focused on family. It is a time to be together, they said, and to enjoy the holiday.
As a child, LePage said, his family relied on the church and charities, including The Salvation Army, to bring a little Christmas cheer to their poverty-stricken home on Lincoln Street.
To give an idea how poor they were, he said, one year he got a flashlight for Christmas to help him when he went down into the dark cellar to get wood. He didn't get the batteries to operate it until the following Christmas.
This year, the couple will be at their house in Florida for Christmas, where the ex-governor is going for a routine medical procedure related to the bariatric surgery he had five years ago that helped him lose 85 pounds. LePage said he could get into the hospital right away in Florida, but it might have been eight months before he could do the same in Maine.
LePage said he plans to campaign full-tilt next year and to keep his focus on the issues. He said he wants to talk "pure policy," not personalities, and to do what he can to lower the temperature of an overheated political landscape.
He is not oblivious to his own role in turning up the heat in years past, but insists that he has always been focused on making government work better and cheaper. That is what he is running on this time around.
So far, he said, it is going well. Though he knows it will not be an easy campaign, he said he feels confident he can win it.
"You can't please everybody," LePage said. "All you've got to do is please enough."