The good news for Paul LePage in Monday’s Rasmussen poll is that he has maintained a strong lead in the gubernatorial race, despite having had about as bad a month as a candidate can have, mediawise.

The bad news for LePage is that independent Eliot Cutler barely moved his numbers at all, despite spending a lot of money on TV and a lot of time getting himself known by the Maine people. Cutler saw a 1 percentage point climb from 16 to 17 percent in the poll, finishing last, behind LePage and Democrat Libby Mitchell.

Why is that bad for LePage? Because Cutler and fellow independents Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott (who were not part of the poll) can affect the race without winning. As long as the independents are seen as the alternative to the two major-party candidates for pragmatic, nonideological voters, they take all but the most dedicated voters from the major-party bases. And all indications are that when it comes to counting true believers, LePage wins hands down.

But it’s hard to cast a pragmatic vote for a candidate who doesn’t have a chance to win, and a few more polls like this one are going to make Cutler, Moody and Scott look more like a place to throw away a protest vote than a chance to pick the next governor.

People like to remember that Angus King won as in independent in 1994, but they forget that one of the major-party candidates practically evaporated. Republican nominee Susan Collins had to spend most of the month of August that year in court, defending herself against a claim that she was not a legal resident of the state.

When she faltered in the race, King became the de facto Republican against Democrat Joe Brennan. With the help of Republican donors, King out-raised Collins in the crucial final days of the race.

If Cutler, Moody and Scott don’t move up in the polls, it’s a two-way race, and in a two-way race with Mitchell, LePage’s 38 percent of the vote doesn’t look quite as strong.

If there ever was a candidate built for 2010, it’s LePage. A rough-hewn outsider, who speaks the language of the tea party and wants to radically remake government, perfectly fits the national narrative about this election.

He’s got zeitgeist written all over him.

The question is, how many Mainers out there are really ready to storm the State House and put him in charge? With a little more than two months to go before the election, he still has not made clear what he wants to do beside reducing the size of government.

Some of his key supporters took over the Republican convention this spring and passed a platform that was out of the mainstream, even for Republicans. (Or do most people really think the repeal of “one-world government” should be a top priority?)

And in his first post-primary round of public appearances, LePage obscured any message he had to deliver with an ungracious crack about Mitchell’s age, an unfounded accusation of an anti-French smear campaign and a confusing succession of answers to questions about his position on teaching “creationism” in public schools.

In his follow-up interviews, LePage sounded thin-skinned, even paranoid, saying that in the future, he would respond to questions only in writing. He skipped some early debates, apparently to raise money, leaving his opponents the opportunity to define him.

This was a chance to gain an edge on LePage. But his base, if the poll can be believed, did not erode.

Which leaves the question of how the remaining votes will be distributed.

As this election shapes up as a referendum on LePage, then the question for some voters will be, who is the alternative? It might not be their first choice, just whoever is the anti-LePage, which makes Mitchell’s position look very good.

If there ever was a candidate with the wind in her face this year, it’s Mitchell.

She’s the closest thing to an incumbent in an anti-incumbent election. She is a Democrat in a year when the party brand is broken, and with 30 years in public life, she has a hard time making the case that voting for her is a vote for change.

But she’s smart, she’s disciplined and she doesn’t make mistakes. Unless a federal judge rewrites Maine’s Clean Election law, she will have a well-financed campaign that will be able to defend itself against and attack LePage.

And the more of his own money that Cutler spends, the more matching funds Mitchell gets, which is the other way that he can affect the race without winning.

Polling in August might not mean much, but this race appears to be shaping up.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer at The Portland Press Herald. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]