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January 31, 2013

Eliot Cutler

Bill Nemitz: Cutler sees no need for spoiler alert

Oh, how easy it would be.

One conference call between Eliot Cutler and the powers that be in Maine's Democratic Party -- a verbal handshake welcoming Cutler back into the Dems' camp after an eight-year absence -- and the 2014 race for governor would be already over.

"I am who I am and I'll either win or lose on that basis," insisted Cutler in a telephone interview Friday. "What's important to me is not one party or another, but the state of Maine. And that's why I will run -- if I run."

Disregard that "if." Cutler's formation of a campaign committee last week leaves no one doubting he'll run once again for the Blaine House, just as he did in 2010, as an independent stick in the spokes of Maine's two-party apparatus.

And if last week's poll by Public Policy Polling is any indication (don't disregard that "if" just yet), the outcome would be essentially the same: In a three-way race with Cutler as the independent and anyone under the sun as the Democrat, Republican Gov. Paul LePage would easily win re-election.

But then there's the more fascinating flip side of the Public Policy poll: In a two-way race against either Cutler or one of Maine's top three Democrats -- former Gov. John Baldacci, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree or U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud -- LePage is on his way back to the corner office at Marden's Surplus & Salvage. (Or, more likely, a golf course in sunny Florida.)

The Public Policy poll found that Cutler, who lost to LePage by just 1.7 percent in their three-way race with Democrat Libby Mitchell two years ago, would beat LePage head-on by 8 percent today. Perhaps more notably, Michaud, Baldacci and Pingree each would trounce LePage by double digits.

So, Mr. Cutler, which is more important to you: Becoming the next governor of Maine -- even if it means re-enrolling as a Democrat, slugging your way through a primary if necessary, and taking on LePage mano-a-mano?

Or is this crusade all about continuing on as a standard bearer for the non-partisan independent movement and, in the process, quite possibly providing LePage a clear path to a second term?

"That's not the choice that I see," replied Cutler.

(How did we know he'd say that?)

For starters, Cutler noted, "it's too damn early to make those kinds of calculations. It really is. And I resist it."

That is, until those calculations become irresistible.

LePage, theorized Cutler, is "in a very interesting position. Paul has a hard ceiling of about 38 percent (support among Maine voters). He has a hard floor of about 30, maybe even 31 or 32."

Meaning, in Cutler's view, LePage's now-infamous "38 percent" label isn't as indelible as many think it is. With two tumultuous years under LePage's belt and two more to go, Cutler foresees at least some slippage.

"Should he run again, his vote is likely to be, let's say, in the middle of (his 38 percent ceiling and his 30 percent floor). So let's just say it's 35 percent," proposed Cutler. "That leaves 65 percent out there."

Meaning that with Cutler battling, say Baldacci, for that 65 percent (and no other independents siphoning off a precious few percentage points, a la Shawn Moody's 5 percent finish in 2010), Maine then has a three-way, too-close-to-call horse race on its hands.

Cutler's expectation: Widespread fear among Maine's anyone-but-LePage majority of another four years of chaos in Augusta "is going to help one candidate or another. There is going to be a coalescence around an alternative to Paul LePage who people believe can lead the state in an entirely different direction."

The man has a point. In the waning days of the 2010 race, Maine voters -- some afraid to waste their vote on the lackluster Democrat Mitchell, others still undecided -- migrated swiftly and almost telepathically to Cutler.

Thus his support, which most polls put in the low teens around Labor Day, surged to just 9,795 votes short (out of 580,538 cast) on Election Day.

"I think Maine voters in 2014 are going to sort of understand the lay of the land a little better than they did maybe in 2010," said Cutler. "They're going to know me better and for better or worse, they're going to know LePage better."

And should LePage win again, might they also forever remember Cutler as the "spoiler" who made it all possible -- again?

"The only people talking about 'spoiler' are people from one party or another," rebutted Cutler. "I didn't walk around (post-2010) saying Libby Mitchell was a spoiler. In fact, I tell people to stop saying it. I really don't believe that word belongs in our lexicon in Maine, in particular."

Why so?

"I think it demeans the process," Cutler replied. "I think it demeans democracy. I think it demeans choice. I think it demeans all the things that are -- or ought to be -- important to us as participants in the process."

Cutler has two problems with the notion that independent candidates tend to muck up the electoral process.

The first, he said, is the fact that the major-party candidates are typically anointed in the primaries by pluralities representing fewer than 5 percent of Maine's electorate.

(He's right: In 2010, Democrat Mitchell's primary supporters totaled 4.3 percent of all registered Maine voters, while LePage's Republican backers comprised 4.9 percent).

Secondly, Cutler said, Maine's long history of voter independence (see: U.S. Sen. Angus King) reflects an electorate heavily populated by what pollsters call "switchers" -- voters who care far less about party loyalty or affiliation than they do about the character of the individual candidate.

So back to that notion of Cutler with a "D" after his name. Ain't going to happen -- evah?

"I would not vote for me if I became a candidate in the Democratic primary," said Cutler. "It's just not me. I feel deeply about the state of Maine. I think I could be a very good governor. And I think I can do that most effectively, and certainly truest to myself, as an independent."

So buckle up, fellow Mainers, and get out your calculators.

Let the triangulation begin.

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

bnemitz@mainetoday.com





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