He never expected, with Election Day looming, that he’d find himself once again in front of the microphones and TV cameras. Yet there stood former Maine Gov. Angus King on Saturday afternoon, back in the fray.

“My position for the past eight years has been I’m not going to inject myself into gubernatorial campaigns,” King said to a room crowded with supporters of independent hopeful Eliot Cutler. “I had no expectation of being here today. But circumstances sometimes force you to take positions.”

Those circumstances, in a nutshell, were the now-infamous mailers put out by the Maine Democratic Party in recent days. They predicted that under a Cutler administration, we’d see everything from oil spills in the Gulf of Maine to a raid on Maine’s economy by China.

The mailers, for which the Maine Democrats apologized late Friday, clearly were a Hail Mary pass by a party that sees Republican Paul LePage leading, Cutler surging and their own Libby Mitchell dropping like a stone with only days left before Mainers go to the polls.

But for King, who has eschewed any and all endorsements until now, it was the two China mailers – one went so far as to say that if Cutler becomes governor, Mainers looking for a job will have to “learn Chinese” – that prompted him to run in from the sidelines and block for Cutler.

To be sure, King said, “I’m angry at the tone and the overwhelming wave of just nasty stuff.”

But what really set him off, he continued, was the suggestion that Cutler’s extensive business connections in China, where he worked as a lawyer for several years, somehow should be seen as a threat to Maine’s already flagging economy.

King, in fact, sees the opposite. 

“I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute. What we really need in this state is someone who has Maine roots and national and international experience,’ ” King said. “If we try to shut Maine down and close its borders, we’re dead ducks. We’re not going to be able to weather the storm that we are facing.”

Put more simply, King said, “If one in a thousand Chinese had a lobster roll once a week, we’d be the richest state in America.”

Beyond the China flap, King described Cutler as “a really smart guy. He has thought about these issues as deeply as anyone I’ve ever encountered in Maine. He has developed and put forward substantive ideas and plans that are detailed but don’t make promises that he can’t keep. I’m impressed with that.”

What’s more, King said, he’s noticed that even as Cutler gets mugged on the airwaves by Democrats and Republicans alike, “he hasn’t responded in kind. I think that’s important.”

All of which brings us to one down-to-earth question: Will King’s 11th-hour endorsement, welcome as it is throughout Camp Cutler, prove enough to head off what many already foresee as a slam-dunk victory for LePage?

Conceded King, never one to overreach, “I don’t know whether it will have any impact.”

The man’s too modest.

For weeks, Mainers who shudder at the thought of LePage moving into the Blaine House have found themselves increasingly torn between a fast-fading Mitchell and a late-charging Cutler.

Noted Cutler campaign manager Ted O’Meara, “Sixty percent of the people at least, maybe more, do not want Paul LePage as governor. And there are a number of them saying, ‘Which way do I go? Give me a sign. Give me a signal.’”

Put another way, it’s as if many voters still on the fence – Republicans who consider LePage too inexperienced and hotheaded, Democrats who fear Mitchell represents more of the same, independents who don’t want to waste their anyone-but-LePage vote – all need permission to go ahead and vote for Cutler.

In King, O’Meara said, they now have it. “I think it gives moderates on both sides permission to come to the middle,” he said.

John Haley of Brunswick just might fit that bill.

Haley last appeared in this column in mid-September after e-mailing Cutler and urging him to drop out of the race before it’s too late.

Haley’s concern back then: Cutler would be to Mitchell what independent Ralph Nader was to Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race – a spoiler who scored just high enough to cost Gore the presidency.

Haley said at the time he had nothing personal and, for that matter, not a lot philosophical against Cutler. In fact, he noted, if Cutler “had a snowball’s chance in hell” of winning, “I’d be just as likely to donate my time and money to him as I would to Libby Mitchell.”

It’s too late for Haley’s time or money to matter much now. But what about his vote?

“The big goal, the brass ring, is just making sure Paul LePage doesn’t win,” Haley said in an interview Saturday. “And at this point, the rational side of me has to say that voting for Cutler is probably the best shot at making that happen.”

Mitchell, Haley noted, “looks tired and she looks defeated and there’s almost this sense of resignation that’s really sad.”

Meaning in the end, Cutler won him over?

“Clearly, he’s much more within striking distance than Libby at this point,” replied Haley, adding he’ll “probably end up voting for Cutler” but won’t make his final decision until he’s actually standing over his ballot on Tuesday.

Back at Cutler headquarters, King said he knows a thing or two about such last-minute conversions.
“I’m convinced that I won my election in 1994 by people actually making up their minds in the voting booth,” King said.

Of course, last week’s final flurry of statewide polls, which showed LePage leading Cutler by anywhere from 6 to 19 percentage points, still suggest strongly that this is LePage’s race to lose.

But polls aren’t always predictors: Back in 1976,  King noted, the late Jim Longley trailed by 10 to 15 points the weekend before he surprised the entire country and became Maine’s first independent governor.

“In the last two weeks, I’ve had an amazing number of people come up to me on the street and say, ‘What do you think? What are you going to do?’” King said. “And I’ve told them I don’t know.”

Now he knows. And, King added with a grin, “If any of those people are listening, now they know.”
Will it make a difference? Can Cutler, buoyed by political heavyweights and Election Day converts alike, actually pull this off?

In these final, frantic hours of a campaign not soon to be forgotten, nobody can say.
But even as LePage’s ardent, angry army plans its victory celebration, this thing still feels far from over.
 
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]