Correction, Friday, October 8, 2010 at 11:20 a.m.: The original version of this article contained inaccurate information which has been removed. MaryEllen Fitzgerald has never volunteered for candidate Eliot Cutler.

Less than four weeks before Election Day, Stanley Archie is still undecided about his vote for governor.

The 69-year-old Saco resident was drawn initially to Republican Paul LePage, but now he worries that LePage is too combative. Democrat Libby Mitchell is too entrenched in the establishment, he says.

That leaves him looking at independent Eliot Cutler, who is smart and has a great resume, he says. But Archie doesn’t want to waste his vote on a spoiler.

“His standing in the polls is kind of scary,” he said of Cutler.

Political experts say that is Cutler’s biggest challenge right now: convincing voters that he can win.

Despite spending more money than any other candidate and impressing people with his command of the issues, Cutler has been unable to build any momentum, polls show.

Barring a surge in the last weeks of the campaign, Cutler’s popularity may have peaked this summer. A poll by Rasmussen Reports on Aug. 12 showed that 16 percent of likely voters supported him.

The Maine Poll, done for MaineToday Media, pegged his support at 11 percent on Sept. 13 and at 9 percent on Sept. 27.

In an interview Thursday, Cutler said he has noticed a surge of support at campaign events in the past week, due to his performance at recent forums and debates. He said the polls in September worried him, but he now believes he can win.

“The only question is whether I have enough time, and I think I do,” he said.

Cutler is now ratcheting up his campaign.

On Thursday, he aired a new television commercial in the biggest ad buy of his campaign. Cutler says in the ad that he would provide an alternative to partisan bickering in Augusta.

In an e-mail to supporters Thursday, Cutler said he is running the largest online advertising effort in the state’s history and distributing more than 10,000 yard signs across all 16 counties.

“Remember the only wasted vote is a vote for somebody you don’t believe in,” Cutler said in the e-mail.

While some pollsters say Cutler can still get back in the race, others say it’s too late. They say Cutler has become a distraction in an election that only Mitchell or LePage can win.

Cutler now has to scramble to stay ahead of Shawn Moody, an independent who has more appeal among moderate Republicans who are unhappy with LePage, said Christian Potholm, a government professor at Bowdoin College.

Potholm said Cutler, who was an aide to Sen. Edmund Muskie and worked in the Carter administration, is popular among business leaders and affluent moderates but has failed to connect with “small-town Republicans,” a much bigger voting bloc.

“He comes across as somebody who has all the answers,” Potholm said.

It’s clear that Cutler won’t win, said Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College. At the same time, he said, it’s difficult to determine whether Cutler is taking votes away from Mitchell or LePage.

Maisel agrees with Potholm that Moody, who has trailed Cutler in the polls, may pass Cutler and emerge as the primary alternative to Mitchell and LePage.

MaryEllen FitzGerald, president of the polling firm that did The Maine Poll for MaineToday Media, said it’s too soon to say that Cutler’s campaign is failing. She said poll results after Columbus Day weekend are much more significant.

“I am certainly not willing to write him off at this stage,” said FitzGerald.

Cutler can still win because this election is especially volatile, and one of every four voters is still undecided, said Ted O’Meara, Cutler’s campaign manager.

Cutler is the overwhelming second choice for both Mitchell and LePage supporters, and is perfectly positioned to get votes from people who are unhappy with the nominees of the two major parties. O’Meara said.

Many voters who now support LePage or Mitchell are motivated by fear that the nominee of the other party will win, he said.

He said people should vote for someone because they believe he or she is the best candidate.

Cutler is ahead in one category: spending money.

Through Sept. 14, the most recent campaign finance reporting period, Cutler had spent $1.2 million. Mitchell, who is receiving public funding through the Maine Clean Election Act, had spent $1 million. LePage had spent $402,000, and Moody had spent $382,000.

Maine voters have shown a willingness to elect an independent governor. Jim Longley Sr. won as an unenrolled candidate in 1974. And Angus King won twice as an independent, in 1994 and 2002.

In his first election, King was behind in every poll until the last week. this time in the campaign, however, a poll showed he had 31 percent of the vote, behind only Democrat Joe Brennan.

Cutler said the current political climate is similar to the climate in 1974, when nearly 40 percent of voters were still undecided in the first week of October. A poll on Oct. 17 pegged Longley’s support at 10.8 percent, and the press portrayed him as spoiler. In the end, Longley won 40 percent of the vote, to Democrat George Mitchell’s 37 percent and Republican James Erwin’s 23 percent.

Both parties and the press failed to take Longley seriously, said Potholm, who wrote about the election in his book “This Splendid Game.” He won because he positioned himself as the outsider at a time when the public was cynical about politics because of the Watergate scandal.

The high number of undecided voters at this point in the campaign presents an opportunity for candidates who are trailing, said Kay Rand, who was King’s campaign manager in 1994. She said Cutler must do a better job connecting with unenrolled voters — who represent 35 percent of the electorate — and angry male voters.

“Clearly, the race is pretty volatile,” she said. “Eliot needs to start contrasting himself with the other two candidates.”

At a forum held by the Portland Regional Chamber on Wednesday, Cutler did just that.

He said LePage’s “tough-sounding rhetoric and made-up stories” can’t replace plans and a vision. He said Mitchell would not make any substantial changes to the status quo.

“I want you to have a better choice,” he said.

Stephen Train, 43, a fisherman from Long Island, is a Republican who is supporting Cutler. He said he is urging other Cutler supporters to vote for the best candidate, and not to worry about the polls.

People who think Cutler is aloof haven’t had a chance to meet with him, said Train, who has seen Cutler at three meetings with fishermen,

“Affable might be reaching, but he has always been approachable,” Train said. “He listens well. I’m voting for the guy.”

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com