In a state where even Democrats are careful not to offend sportsmen and gun owners, independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler positioned himself Thursday as the best candidate when it comes to supporting gun-control measures.

Cutler accepted the endorsement of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, a gun-control group that has about 200 members statewide and lobbies for what it says are sensible gun restrictions.

But even during the endorsement, Cutler was careful.

“I support the Second Amendment,” he said at an event in Portland’s Lincoln Park. “I honor Maine’s long tradition of responsible gun ownership, and I respect and am grateful for our low rate of gun crime.

“But I also believe – as most Maine gun owners do – that universal background checks on gun sales and transfers represent a necessary, common-sense approach to minimizing the number of guns that end up in the hands of people who simply shouldn’t own them, like convicted criminals and people suffering from mental illness who are a danger to themselves or others.”

It was the first endorsement of the race for Cutler, who has been running a distant third in all public polling to date, and his campaign sees the support of the gun-control group as an opportunity to eat into Democrat Mike Michaud’s progressive base of support.

But the endorsement doesn’t come with financial support, and the positions of Cutler and Michaud on background checks are virtually the same.

And even if Cutler and Michaud differed greatly on gun issues, those issues are not a major driver for voters this election cycle, said University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer.

“Put it this way: Very few people in Maine are using Second Amendment issues to make up their mind between Eliot Cutler and Mike Michaud,” he said.

“There will certainly be voters who are in favor of gun-control legislation like universal background checks, but it’s not a central issue and there probably aren’t many,” said Ronald Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine.

Gun-control advocates used a couple of examples Thursday to explain why Gov. Paul LePage and Michaud were not getting their endorsement.

Not long after a mentally unstable young man opened fire inside a Connecticut elementary school in December 2012, killing 27 people, including himself, Maine lawmakers took up a bill that sought to encourage more accountability for gun purchases at gun shows. It drew criticism as an attack on the Second Amendment and had to be watered down considerably just to pass 18-17 through the Senate and 78-71 in the House.

LePage, as expected, vetoed the bill, and the Legislature upheld his veto.

At the federal level, a bill introduced last year would have required background checks on all commercial gun sales. Three members of Maine’s congressional delegation signed the Senate bill or its House equivalent. Only Michaud did not.

The Senate bill ultimately failed and the House version never made it to the floor.

“On the issue of preventing gun violence, Eliot Cutler stands head and shoulders above his opponents, Mike Michaud and Paul LePage,” William Harwood, a Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence board member, said Thursday.

In reality, Cutler and Michaud express similar views on the key issue of background checks for gun purchases.

Cutler supports universal background checks except in one-generation family transfers, such as father to son.

Michaud’s position is the same, only he would adopt a broader interpretation of family transfers.

Lizzy Reinholt, Michaud’s campaign spokeswoman, said the Democrat supported the federal background checks bill last year but did not sign on because he knew it was going nowhere.

“If he were to sign that bill, he would have a harder time working with the other side to craft something that could actually pass,” she said.

After the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, when many Democratic lawmakers were calling for increased gun-control measures, Michaud urged better enforcement of existing laws and focusing on the root causes of gun violence, such as mental illness, but said new restrictions were not needed.

Michaud also has taken $27,900 in contributions during his career from the National Rifle Association, the powerful group that opposes virtually all gun-control measures. In 2012, Michaud sided with the NRA 83 percent of the time and received the group’s endorsement, according to Project Vote Smart.

Reinholt downplayed the NRA contributions by saying Michaud has always been clear about where he stands and cannot control who the group gives money to.

She said Michaud, as a six-term congressman representing a district rich in sportsmen and Second Amendment supporters, has tried to strike a balance between reasonable restriction and preserving rights.

“He is right in the middle, which is where most Mainers are,” she said. “And that means he’ll be hit on the (political) left and the right on this issue.”

LePage, like many Republicans, does not support universal background checks.

“Governor LePage believes that the Maine Constitution is very clear as it reads: ‘Every citizen has a right to keep and bear arms and this right shall never be questioned,’ ” said campaign spokesman Alex Willette.

In his veto letter last year of the bill that would have tightened restrictions on sales at gun shows, LePage wrote: “Those who would commit terrible crimes with firearms are one of two things: mentally ill or criminal. No amount of laws will change that behavior.”

Maine is well known as a state that supports gun access, and efforts to restrict gun sales or ownership – in Maine and nationally – are almost always dead on arrival.

A poll commissioned in early 2013 by the Portland Press Herald found that 55 percent of Maine adults reported having a gun on their property. That was 8 percentage points higher than the response to the same question in a national Gallup poll conducted months prior.

A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll commissioned by the Press Herald last month found that 44 percent of gun owners surveyed said they would vote for LePage, 35 percent said they would vote for Michaud and 13 percent said they would vote for Cutler. Among non-gun owners, Michaud led with 50 percent support, followed by LePage with 23 percent and Cutler with 18 percent.

The Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence political action committee has historically spent very little money assisting the electoral fortunes of gun-control candidates. Its PAC has posted no financial activity as of the last reporting period. It spent $567 during the 2010 election to oppose the candidacy of Republican Gerald Davis in the state Senate District 11 race against independent incumbent Richard Woodbury.

Harwood, the longtime board member, said the group did not endorse in the 2010 governor’s race, which featured Cutler, but felt compelled to this time. Harwood has personally contributed the maximum of $1,500 to Cutler’s campaign.

Staff Writer Steve Mistler contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell