He can’t get it out of his head. Every time John Haley of Brunswick thinks about independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, he sees Ralph Nader.

“I WILL NOT vote for you for one simple reason,” wrote Haley, who describes himself as “very progressive, very liberal,” in a recent e-mail to Cutler. “A vote cast for you, sadly, is a vote to make Paul LePage the next governor, and that is a TRULY frightening proposition to me.”

He later implored, “PLEASE, PLEASE do the right thing! Don’t be the Ralph Nader of the 2010 Maine governor’s race…If you TRULY care about this state, which I believe you do, drop out of this race and throw your support behind Libby Mitchell.”

It is the front-and-center question on many a center-to-left voter’s mind these days: Will Cutler do to Democrat Libby Mitchell what Ralph Nader did to Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election — siphon off just enough votes from Mitchell to ensure that Republican LePage becomes Maine’s next governor six weeks from Tuesday?

“Ralph Nader is a great guy and had great ideas, but he had no shot at winning,” noted Haley in his e-mail. “But in that SO-close election, he took away enough votes to give us George W. Bush as our president.”

To which Ted O’Meara, Cutler’s campaign manager, replied flatly last week, “A lot can happen. There’s a lot of runway left here…I could argue just as strongly that Libby Mitchell’s the one who should get out of the way and give Eliot Cutler a clean shot at Paul LePage.”

To fully understand what all the hand wringing’s about, let’s go to the numbers.

As you’ll see elsewhere on these pages this morning, a statewide poll conducted by Critical Insights for MaineToday Media put the gubernatorial race as of Sept. 13 at 38 percent for LePage, 25 percent for Mitchell, 11 percent for Cutler, 4 percent for independent Shawn Moody and 1 percent for independent Kevin Scott.

Twenty-one percent of those polled, meanwhile, still don’t know which box they’ll check come Nov. 2.

In other words, The Maine Poll shows little has changed since previous surveys revealed essentially the same split among the three front-runners. LePage remains the man to beat, while both Mitchell and Cutler appear to be going nowhere fast in their efforts to overtake him.

(The Maine Poll, it should be noted, was conducted before voters had time to digest LePage’s widely reported temper tantrums last week over questions about his wife’s real estate holdings and residency status in Maine and Florida. What impact, if any, that fiasco will have on voter sentiment remains to be seen.)

Haley, who said he’s worked for a variety of non-profit and social service agencies over the years, lived here from 2000-03, moved to Chicago and returned to Maine this year in search of employment.

He insists that he’s neither donated to nor volunteered for Mitchell’s campaign. In fact, he said last week, he’d have no problem whatsoever backing Cutler over Mitchell if he felt Cutler had “a snowball’s chance in hell” of actually winning this thing.

“There is very little if anything I take great exception to in (Cutler’s) policies and his views,” Haley said (although he later added that he’s a bit squeamish about Cutler’s welfare-reform plan). “If he was polling at 30 percent, I’d be just as likely to donate my time and money to him as I would to Libby Mitchell.”

But the simple truth is that Cutler, who’s counting on a late surge similar to the one that vaulted independent Angus King into the Blaine House back in 1994, is running out of time. And that’s why Haley decided to personally ask him to stand down.

“This is solely based on what I see seven weeks out from the election,” Haley said. “The prospect of LePage being in the Blaine House for at least four years is a really frightening prospect to me.”

Apparently Haley is not alone. O’Meara publicly complained last week about what he said was an under-the-radar effort by the Mitchell campaign to paint Cutler as this fall’s spoiler and persuade him to step aside and throw his support behind Mitchell.

“It definitely was a well-coordinated effort,” O’Meara said. But far from nudging Cutler toward the sidelines, he added, “it just stiffens his resolve and makes him work even harder.”

The Mitchell campaign, meanwhile, says they’re behind none of this. As far as Mitchell is concerned, said senior adviser Jesse Connolly, this remains a “two-person race between Libby and Mr. LePage.”

“I understand why other folks have contacted Eliot, but the campaign had no involvement and it wasn’t an orchestrated effort by anyone on our behalf,” Connolly said. “But I clearly understand people’s thoughts on that issue.”

Motives and machinations aside, it’s hard not to look at Cutler’s campaign at this stage and wonder why, in what many expected to be a three-way horse race, he continues to lag so far behind.

“I don’t know,” O’Meara replied. “I can’t put my finger on it. I said to Eliot the other day, ‘We have the biggest “secret society” in Maine.’ I can’t tell you how many people, Republicans and Democrats, people who are active politically in the state, active partisans, you’d recognize most of them, tell (Cutler) privately, ‘You’re the best candidate, I’m probably going to vote for you but I just can’t be public for you.”‘

O’Meara warns, not surprisingly, that “polls aren’t predictors of outcome.” But at the same time, even he concedes that “our numbers have to improve over the next few weeks for people to really believe that (Cutler) is a viable candidate.”

Starting, it would seem, with voters like Haley.

After several messages flew back and forth between Haley and O’Meara, Cutler himself joined the e-mail chain last week to rebuff the Ralph Nader analogy (“I am the centrist in this race,” he wrote, “not one of the wingers!” ) and to woo Haley’s vote.

“I respect your passionate concern about making sure that Paul LePage is not Maine’s next governor,” Cutler wrote. “As I think you understand, I share that passion — but in my case it’s directed at both Paul and Libby. You and I may disagree about half of that, but it is the reason why I am running and why I have no intention of losing…or quitting.”

Nor, recalls a still-nervous Haley, did Ralph Nader.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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