After months of campaigning, and an unprecedented tidal wave of national advertising sludge oozing out of our televisions, the race for governor is now down to its last 19 days. And it’s make-or-break time for independent Eliot Cutler.

While his campaign can point to movement in some recent polls, more needs to happen for Cutler to change the basic narrative of the campaign: It’s a tight race between Democrat Mike Michaud and the Republican governor, Paul LePage, with Cutler trailing far enough behind to be off the radar.

For that story line to change, two things need to happen: Cutler’s numbers need to move into the mid-20s and be trending up, and Michaud’s numbers need to decline, moving the candidates to within shouting distance of each other.

If both of those things happen, the race will be thrown into disarray overnight. That kind of momentum tends to accelerate itself, as we saw in Angus King’s first race for governor in 1994, and in the last gubernatorial election. In both, late surges changed the conventional wisdom on a race faster than pundits and polls could keep up.

To tens of thousands of Maine voters, me included, the most important goal of this election is to remove Paul LePage from office before he does further damage to our state, our brand and our economy. We all want to elect the best candidate to do that. The problem is that the “best” candidate is a combination of someone who will make the best governor and someone who can win.

Both Michaud and Cutler have strengths, and either man could be a solid governor and would certainly be a dramatic improvement over the last four years.

Mike Michaud is a good guy who understands what working families are going through, and who has plenty of experience in government and in bridging partisan divides. He’s made a solid argument that he is someone who can bring people together to solve problems. Eliot Cutler is a talented and forceful leader, with some terrific ideas and connections, who could make a difference in Maine on some of the critical challenges facing the state. In the end, it all comes down to who can win.

We’re now in the thick of the debates that Eliot Cutler has been calling for and that he believes will catapult him forward, just as they did in 2010. Whether that happens or not will be abundantly clear soon. With the last polls on this race in the field after the major televised debates, the question of whether we have a surging Eliot Cutler or a two-way race between Michaud and LePage will be answered.

If Eliot Cutler surges, it will be the great political story of the decade. As we know from other campaigns, when there is late movement for one candidate in a three-way race, someone else collapses. In this case, a Cutler advance would invariably siphon soft support from Michaud, and to a lesser extent from disaffected Republicans.

If the promised surge never materializes, it’s going to be decision time for Cutler supporters. I don’t expect Cutler to pull out of the race. Candidates put themselves through the rigors of campaigns because they believe in themselves and in what they can do for Maine. That is how they sustain themselves through all the ups and downs of a race.

The momentum and roar of a campaign, in the final days, make it virtually impossible for any candidate to find the clarity and perspective to think outside the hours and days they’re rushing through. Asking someone to abandon their campaign, and the dreams they attach to it, is asking too much of anyone.

Two weeks from now, if a surge for Cutler hasn’t materialized, what will matter most is not what he does, but what his supporters do. Many will stay with him, but many more, in my view, will quietly drift off to ensure the defeat of Paul LePage. That is, in effect, what Cutler has suggested that his supporters do, if it becomes clear that he can’t win.

If that movement away from Cutler occurs, it will leave him with only three unwelcome scenarios for ending the race. One is an embarrassing third-place finish. The other is a LePage victory that he’ll be blamed for. The third is that he will step to the microphones to say that removing LePage is a more urgent priority for Maine than his own election.

At the moment, Eliot Cutler still has a chance to catch fire and avoid any of those scenarios. But the clock is ticking, and there is no overtime in this game.

Alan Caron is a partner in the Caron & Egan Consulting Group in Freeport. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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