Put yourself in the very quiet, very nervous place of an Eliot Cutler supporter.
You think, deep down, that Cutler would be a better chief executive for Maine than Republican Gov. Paul LePage or Democratic challenger Rep. Mike Michaud.
At the same time, you wake up in a cold sweat at the thought of LePage, by way of another squeaky victory in a three-way race, spending another four years turning Maine into a national punch line.
So you’ve been laying low. A “Cutler 2014” sticker on your car bumper right now, you fear, would be tantamount to a bull’s-eye on your back for all those “anyone but LePage” voters who insist to this day that your guy – and only your guy – punched LePage’s ticket to the Blaine House in 2010.
Enter Cutler’s new strategy for what he calls the “split-the-vote question.” Rather than simply bristle at the oft-attached “spoiler” label that’s dogged him for the past three-plus years, he’s now offering his supporters an exit strategy.
“Here’s the deal I would propose,” the independent candidate told a worried young lad (who, for the record, looked at least a year or two away from voting age) at a recent rally. “If you’re for me and think I would make the best governor, put my bumper sticker on your bumper or on your bike. Put my lawn sign on your parents’ front lawn and don’t let them say no. Tell your friends at school and their parents whom you’re for and why. And stick with me.”
Cue the other shoe dropping …
“If on the day before the election, or the morning you have to go vote, if you don’t think I can win, vote for someone else,” Cutler said. “But if everyone in Maine who thinks I’d be the best governor sticks with me, helps me, goes forward with me, we’re going to win in a walk. Deal?”
“Deal,” the young man replied, to rousing applause.
Stage managed? Probably, considering that Cutler’s campaign released the video and he’s stuck almost verbatim to the script during the “200, 300, 400 times” he’s had the identical conversation, he claims, with voters all over Maine.
But make no mistake about it, this marks a change in tactics for Cutler.
Six months ago, he wouldn’t even entertain the widely held perception that he was – and could again be – the grease on LePage’s skids to Maine’s highest state office.
Now, he’s addressing the “split-the-vote question” head-on and even offering his loyalists a last-minute emergency chute.
More on that “deal” in a minute. First, to be fair, a gentle reminder:
It’s not even the middle of May. Cutler, according to the current average by Real Clear Politics, is polling at 17.3 percent support among Maine’s electorate, compared with 38.3 percent for LePage and 38 percent for Michaud.
In June of 2010, as Cutler is quick to point out, he was all but invisible at a paltry 3 percent. Before his late surge that fall while Democrat Elizabeth Mitchell’s campaign imploded, he didn’t cross the 20 percent line until mid-October.
Some (no, make that many) respond, “So what? Whatever support Cutler had back then has evaporated. And besides, Mike Michaud is a stronger candidate than Mitchell ever was and can easily beat LePage if Cutler would just get the hell out of the way!”
To which Cutler, ever the diplomat, replied during a brief interview in his Portland office Wednesday: “I don’t think Mike Michaud could have beaten Libby Mitchell in a primary.”
What’s more, he said, “What I’ve discovered … (is) the half-life of political name recognition is (snapping his fingers) like that.”
Meaning, maintains Cutler, a surprising number of voters have forgotten all about him, need to be reintroduced to him and, upon getting comfy again, will escort him to victory “in a walk.”
Call him crazy. Call him egotistic, narcissistic and wildly optimistic. Call him so obsessed with what could be that he can’t bear to face what is.
But call him an also-ran with Election Day still 179 anything-can-happen days away? (We’re looking at you, Gov. LePage.) Why the rush?
And why, when you consider that Cutler got 27,441 more votes in 2010 than Angus King did when he first ran for governor in 1994, should Cutler pack it in now?
Which brings us back to the “split-the-vote question” and Cutler’s proposed “deal.”
Put simply, he’s not offering enough.
It’s one thing to ask voters to do what many already do anyway: wait until they’re in the voting booth to undergo their final gut check.
But what about Cutler? What will he do if, a day or three before the election, he’s still mired 15 or 20 points behind a neck-and-neck LePage and Michaud race and knows in his own gut that there’s no way on earth he can win?
Will this week’s carefully calculated wink turn into a reluctant, all-out nod? Will Cutler signal to his supporters (loudly, not telepathically) that it’s time to break ranks and “vote for someone else?”
Late Thursday, Cutler agreed to answer that one via email – provided I run the whole reply.
“I don’t believe either Mike Michaud or Paul LePage has the skills, temperament or independence to lead Maine and rebuild our economy,” he wrote. “I am running to make sure neither is elected and that I am, and I feel confident that on Election Day I will be poised to be Maine’s next governor.”
Drum roll, please …
“If I were to wake up on Election Day convinced that I have no chance of winning, I would tell my supporters that they should no longer feel an obligation to vote for me.”
Of course, his supporters may well have figured that out for themselves by then. Still, it’s the best Cutler can do at this point to answer “the split-the-vote question” without simply waving a white flag and going home.
“Basically, it’s building people’s confidence again,” Cutler said this week. “It’s saying to people, ‘Hey, vote your hopes. Vote your dreams. Vote your aspirations. Don’t vote your fears. Just figure out who you think would be the best governor and then stick with me.’”
Until you can’t.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: