The campaign for governor finally has begun in earnest. To the candidates and their campaign teams, it must seem as if the race has gone on for years. For most people, however, everything to this point has been mildly amusing insider baseball.

The first wave of regular Maine voters are just now starting to pay attention. Each week, more will join them. By the final two weeks of October, everyone will be talking about the race, at the coffee shop, at work or at the local grocery store.

Here’s how I’d assess the preliminary rounds and where things stand.

Paul LePage has run exactly the campaign that his team designed, focusing on his successes in cutting spending, cleaning up corruption at the turnpike authority and pointing to an improving economy. LePage’s team also effectively controlled the political debate, while the Legislature was in session, with a series of initiatives on welfare.

LePage’s campaign is aimed squarely at his base of support among conservatives, and he’s been giving them what they want. Along the way, he’s also steadfastly avoided forums that aren’t built around friendly audiences and let his strategists do the talking for his campaign.

Mike Michaud has done a good job of re-introducing himself to voters around the state and solidifying Democratic support. Until recently, though, he didn’t have a very compelling message that could define his campaign. That’s beginning to change with his most recent ads, in which he portrays himself as a regular guy who understands the difficulties that Maine people are experiencing, and someone who can bring people together.

Eliot Cutler has suffered through months in the doldrums. Aside from his book and a few pronouncements, he hasn’t been able to generate much momentum. With no ready-made party base of support, no convention and no national party leaders who could swoop into Maine to generate news coverage, he’s had a longer summer than the rest of us.

He’s also been mired in a distant third in the polls, which has forced him to spend valuable time and energy reassuring core supporters and fending off calls to withdraw.

Now, with Labor Day behind us, the decisive phase of the campaign has begun, announced by a wave of television ads. While some of what happened over the last year will matter, all of it can change quickly, as voters start to pay attention in growing numbers.

It has to be said that Cutler, in particular, has had a couple of good weeks. First, he ran one of the most effective ads of the campaign so far, in which he touted his experience creating a company that now sells millions of lobsters to China. Then, a federal judge overturned funding restrictions that allow party candidates to raise money more easily than independents. The lawsuit that prompted that decision, and the subsequent ruling, generated sympathetic coverage for Cutler, presenting him as a guy running against the privileged machinery of politics.

Then came a big shot in the arm for Cutler, when Angus King stepped to a microphone to urge Mainers to support him. Cutler’s opponents downplayed the role of endorsements, but King’s sudden emergence into an otherwise plodding campaign has undoubtedly caused concern.

King is not just any guy; he’s among the state’s most popular and persuasive figures, and he knows a thing or two about what it takes to be governor. Voters may not follow his lead, in the end, but they will take note.

The question since then has been would King take his endorsement to the next level by appearing in television ads for Cutler, reaching tens of thousands of voters who hadn’t read the news. That question was answered earlier this week when the Cutler campaign rolled out a forceful new ad featuring King at his best.

Cutler clearly has been playing his strongest cards, just as the real race has begun. Will it make a difference? We’re going to know within a few weeks. If the trio of arguments that Cutler is making — his success in business, the stacked deck against him and King’s endorsement — don’t change the dynamics of this race, then it’s hard to see what will.

I suspect the next round of truly independent polls, taken after all the campaigns have run their basic messages on television, will tell us whether this is a two-way race. If Cutler begins to move up, later in September, the political conversation is going to change overnight. If he doesn’t, then the calls for anti-LePage voters to coalesce around Michaud are going to get louder by the day.

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan consulting group, which is active in growing Maine’s next economy. Email at [email protected]

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