BANGOR – Eliot Cutler, dressed in a tailored charcoal suit and drinking coffee from a small paper cup, strides confidently into the WVOM radio studio to meet the morning talk show hosts, Ric Tyler and George Hale.

It is not yet 8 a.m. on a Tuesday in mid-October, and Cutler, one of three candidates running for governor, has already been up for two hours, planning and prepping for another long day on the campaign trail. It will be a day filled with what is known as retail politicking, the art of meeting with small groups and individuals in hopes they will help spread your message.

Retail politicking isn’t an efficient or flashy form of campaigning, but it’s one that still matters, especially in a state like Maine. It’s especially important for Cutler because he doesn’t have a party apparatus.

The 68-year-old independent from Cape Elizabeth has been working for months to convince voters that he is their best choice and not a spoiler who will siphon votes from Democrat Mike Michaud and, in the process, hand Republican Gov. Paul LePage another term.

Yet Cutler, who lost to LePage by about 10,000 votes four years ago, faces long odds.

Every public poll to date has shown him running a distant third and, despite an unrelenting campaign schedule, he hasn’t spent much lately on television advertising. Also, this year’s race features an incumbent who energizes his core supporters, and a well-financed Democrat, in Michaud, whose support has not been as soft as Libby Mitchell’s was in 2010.

With time running out, Cutler remains confident, but everywhere he goes, he can’t avoid the question: What is his path to victory?

“I think people have been waiting for the debates, they are watching closely, they are making up their minds slowly,” Cutler tells the radio hosts. “I think that’s healthy. What’s remarkable to me is how similar this is to 2010.”

WOOING GRANDMOTHERS

From the WVOM studio, Cutler rides in the passenger seat of a Chevy Suburban to his next stop, Ross Manor, a senior living facility. His chauffeur is Peter Cutler, a 20-something campaign staffer who also is his cousin.

The candidate walks into the nursing home at about 9 a.m. and is promptly introduced to some residents who are just finishing breakfast. As they talk, he listens and replies in a soft voice, much different than the tone he used on the radio an hour earlier.

A local TV reporter arrives to catch a quick interview with Cutler before his remarks.

“Why are you campaigning here today?” he is asked.

Cutler, back in media mode, relays an old campaign saying: “Don’t kiss babies. Kiss grandmothers. Babies don’t vote,” and then offers a more substantive response about using every opportunity to talk about his ideas.

The independent firmly believes his policy proposals are superior to those being offered by the major party candidates. Yet, as much as he wants the race to be about ideas, the election has been framed as mostly a referendum on LePage.

Meeting with residents in a community room, Cutler lays out his proposal to rework Maine’s tax code, but disagrees with a listener who wants him to declare his support for a more progressive income tax, which would tax people with higher incomes at higher rates.

After finishing, Cutler shakes more hands on his way out, stopping at the man who challenged him on taxes.

“I think you’d be a fine governor,” the man says.

“I hope I have your vote,” Cutler replies.

MESSAGE DELIVERED

The candidate is running late for his next event, a taped segment at the studio of WVII, an ABC affiliate in Bangor.

Craig Colson, the assistant news director, leads Cutler to a small office so he can polish his remarks. He tells Cutler the station had taped several candidates over the last couple of weeks and only one had gotten it in one take.

But when Colson asks Cutler if he wants to warm up, Cutler says no.

When the camera lights go on, Cutler begins his plea to voters to reject partisan politics and learn more about his plans and ideas, closing with a sound bite summing up his calculation that most Mainers are sick of parties.

When the camera lights go off, he hops off the stool and smiles at Colson.

One take.

SMART ENOUGH TO LISTEN

Even during his lunch break, Cutler is campaigning.

At a private back room at the Sea Dog Restaurant overlooking Bangor’s waterfront, Cutler gathers a group of area supporters – most are business leaders and Republicans – for a weighty discussion of natural gas expansion. It gives him an opportunity, between bites of a Reuben sandwich, to talk about his plan to create a Maine Energy Finance Authority to publicly invest in energy projects.

Perhaps sensing his fiscally minded audience, Cutler says, “there is a difference between a subsidy and an investment.”

Those who criticize him for his smartest-guy-in-the-room aura would be confounded because Cutler mostly listens.

Still, even in a room full of supporters, the discussion gravitates toward Cutler’s electability.

“Everyone I talk to thinks you’re the best candidate, but so many say they are going to vote for Michaud,” says John Simpson, former president of H.E. Sargent, a construction company. “How do you convince people who know you are the best candidate, but don’t think you can win?”

Cutler, who has gotten some version of this question dozens of times for months, isn’t rattled. He touts recent polls that show him rising and Michaud falling. He points to data that suggests he does better in a two-person race against LePage than Michaud does.

And he points out that all independents – including former two-term governor Angus King, who has endorsed Cutler – peak late.