Independent Eliot Cutler was hobbled in the span of five hours, first when he conceded he’s a long shot for Maine governor, then when he lost the backing of U.S. Sen. Angus King.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, basking in King’s new endorsement and buoyed by energetic rallies with top Democrats, is claiming momentum.

And Republican Gov. Paul LePage, perpetually underestimated, stays on course, with his name in the national headlines again thanks to the arrival of a nurse in Fort Kent who had treated people stricken with the dreaded Ebola virus.

The battle for the Blaine House is far from over.

Last week’s events altered the complexion of a neck-and-neck contest between LePage and Michaud that has yielded few surprises. King’s declaration that Cutler can’t beat LePage, and his subsequent endorsement of Michaud, may drive many Cutler supporters who recite the “anyone but LePage” mantra into Michaud’s camp – a goal that the Maine Democratic Party has long pursued.

However, polls show that the governor has maintained a strong position – and at times led – even as Cutler’s support has fallen.

LePage would beat Michaud in a one-on-one match-up even if 64 percent of Cutler voters moved to Michaud, according to a poll conducted recently for the Maine Sunday Telegram by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Other polls give Michaud a slight edge.

“I’ve seen some people say the race is over (following last week’s events),” said Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington. “People have been underestimating Paul LePage for a long, long time as a candidate. They did it in the Republican primary four years ago. They did it in the general election the last time.”

“Do not bury the governor,” he said. “He’s still very much alive and kicking in this race.”

What will Cutler voters do?

Geoffrey Skelley, an associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said endorsements don’t usually matter.

“But I do think they move voters a little bit, and in a race as close as this, it could be significant enough to help Michaud,” he said. “It could be just enough to help get Michaud over the top.”

Melcher agreed.

“I think this endorsement matters more than a typical endorsement because his endorsements are so multi-partisan. King has a lot of credibility with the same kind of people that Cutler had – highly educated, socially liberal, fiscally conservative. He’s almost an ideal person for Michaud to have on his side as somebody to spur the Cutler voters.”

Cutler’s announcement was neither a withdrawal nor a concession. He told his supporters that they should vote for someone else if they’re “compelled by their fears or by their conscience,” but he also vowed to stay in the race, even though he has cut back on TV advertising.

Voters interviewed this past week were frustrated, confused and in one case, steadfast in their support of Cutler.

Janice Bukala, 54, of Eliot voted for Cutler four years ago, thought the independent outperformed his opponents in this year’s three televised debates and planned on voting for him again. That is, until Wednesday’s news conference.

“We look at the poll ratings with Michaud and LePage neck and neck. … I cannot see any possible way (Cutler) can pull a rabbit out of his hat to win,” said Bukala. “There is that whole fear factor, those of us who do not want LePage again will default and vote for Michaud, because another four years of LePage, God help us. And that’s an awful way to go into a voting booth. It’s a lesser of two evils, basically.”

Jake Boston, 26, of South Portland said his support of Cutler is unwavering, despite the statistically small chance that he can pull off a win.

“We have major flaws in the political system,” said Boston, who supports ranked-choice voting. “I have my own viewpoint and I want my voice to be heard for what I think it’s worth, and even if I’m standing for a party that doesn’t have a chance, my voice is still being heard.”

Michael Coulombe, 74, of Norway said that in 2010 he voted for LePage, but has been sorely disappointed in the governor, who he said has embarrassed the state from his first days in office.

This year, Coulombe was planning on voting for Cutler, but is now disappointed in his candidate, and will likely vote for someone else. Still, Coulombe said he is conflicted. As a Christian with a deep opposition to abortion and the gay-rights movement, Coulombe said he struggles to square his beliefs with the pro-choice Michaud, who is also gay.

“I think I’ll be praying right up until the time I go into the voter’s booth,” Coulombe said. “But if it’s a choice between Mr. Michaud and Mr. LePage, it will be Mr. Michaud. I cannot in all conscience vote for Mr. LePage again. He’s hurt my state enough, with his tactics and his antics.”

Melcher estimated that Michaud will need more than half of Cutler’s supporters to move his way by Election Day.

“If he only draws half of Cutler’s supporters, I think the chances are good that the governor will be re-elected,” Melcher said.

All about turnout

Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said that he never thought Cutler would get out of the race.

“Our investment, and our strategy, was built upon us being right where we are right now,” he said.

Grant talked about the strategy at the party’s campaign headquarters on Lancaster Street in Portland. Jonathan Hillier, the Maine Democratic Party’s field director, sat adjacent to Grant at a desk strewn with polling trends and other documents. Hillier spun his laptop around. The screen showed a bar graph depicting, in real time, the status of the party’s voter mobilization.

The effort has been going on for over a year, thanks to a heavy investment in paid canvassers, and now it’s in overdrive.

“We’re measuring (voter contacts) in the tens of thousands every day right now,” Hillier said. “This weekend we’ll do as much as we did in all of the month of October and September.”

Grant said the goal is to replicate the turnout operation of a presidential election. It won’t be easy.

National polls show that the president is unpopular, although less so in Maine than elsewhere. Obama, after all, visited Maine Thursday to stump for Michaud, a rare appearance for the president who, as Skelley said, “is toxic” in other states.

Republicans are deploying their own voter turnout operation known as Freedom 14. The party has revealed less about the effort than the Democrats. However, Republicans have a built-in advantage this year.

History shows that Republican voters tend to turn out in higher numbers during congressional elections, particularly when a Democrat occupies the White House. Polls by the Pew Research Center suggest that Democrats are facing an enthusiasm gap similar to the one that contributed to the 2010 Republican wave election.

Additionally, some political observers believe LePage will benefit from the bear baiting referendum. Andy Smith, executive director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said a recent poll indicated that the referendum appears to be drawing interest from voters not normally engaged in state elections, particularly in rural Maine and the more conservative 2nd Congressional District.

All three candidates publicly oppose the referendum. However, LePage, appears to be the biggest beneficiary of the opposition movement. Twenty-one percent of people who identified themselves as Democrats in the Telegram poll who said they are voting against the referendum are also supporting LePage.

It’s a tricky issue for Michaud, Melcher said. His opposition to the bear baiting ban can’t be too vocal.

“Nobody can say (Michaud) is dodging the question,” he said. “But if this race comes down to where Cutler’s support goes, you’re talking about people that are more southern Maine, more coastal, probably not as likely to be hunters, compared to the average.”

History in the making, made

The gubernatorial race is flirting with history. In some cases, it’s already made it.

If Michaud wins, he will become the first openly gay candidate elected governor in the nation’s history. If LePage wins with less than 40 percent of the vote, he’ll become the first governor to win back to back with that level of support since Republican William Spry of Utah did the same in 1912.

If LePage loses, he’ll be the first incumbent Maine governor to lose since Republican John Reed was defeated by Democrat Kenneth Curtis in 1966.

A Cutler victory would mark a historic, if not unprecedented, comeback.

The 2014 gubernatorial race has already shattered spending records. Michaud’s sexual orientation and LePage’s high profile have brought national interest. At the same time, national interest groups attempting to influence policy at the state level see an opportunity in Maine.

The candidates’ campaigns had spent more than $7.4 million as of late last week, up from $6.3 million in 2010. The Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, which advocates for public campaign financing and tighter disclosure rules, noted that the individual campaigns have taken in $4.55 million from donors giving $500 or more. The amount is four times the amount of money from large donors who gave in 2010.

Meanwhile, groups that operate separately from the campaigns and have the power to spend unlimited amounts of money have obliterated the state record of $4 million spent in 2010. As of Friday, spending by such interest groups attempting to influence the election with political advertising had topped $11.5 million.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

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