What must Cutler do to win?

Phil: In perhaps the least surprising news of the political season, Eliot Cutler has announced that he is running for governor.

Ethan: Wait a minute. I thought you said the least surprising news was when U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud announced that he was running for governor.

Phil: Good point, but Michaud has only been campaigning since June. Eliot has been campaigning since Nov. 3, 2010.

Ethan: Well, you can’t fault a guy for planning ahead.

Phil: Perhaps, but three years have flown by and what has he done? If he had built a business in one of Maine’s depressed areas and/or actively engaged in the legislative process during that time, he would be better seen today as a candidate with proven solutions.

Ethan: So how about we give Eliot some advice? A few thoughts on what he needs to do to move his poll numbers up and get in contention.

Phil: Sure. I would start with making it clear that he is in it for real. I’m already hearing that he may pull out if his poll numbers don’t improve. That sentiment won’t bode well with voters and he must dispel it now.

Ethan: From your lips to God’s ears. Although, since God is clearly a Democrat, I realize I don’t have to say that.

Phil: You think God believes in big government and raising taxes?

Ethan: I think God wouldn’t be cutting food stamps or taking health care away from those who need it, as the loonies in your party are doing.

Phil: I thought we were talking about Eliot Cutler.

Ethan: Oh yeah. My sense is that you are wrong about Cutler being willing to pull out. Everything I am hearing is that he is in it to win it and the other candidates must accept that. On the flip side, I have to give him credit for the book he published. While relatively vague in terms of legislative specifics, he did paint a clear picture of where he wants to take Maine.

Phil: Kudos on the book for sure. It was meant to distinguish him and to set the agenda for Gov. Paul LePage and Michaud. Michaud is the one most vulnerable, because Cutler can point to his vision and LePage can point to his results. What does Michaud have?

Ethan: Mike has 30 plus years of service and results. While I agree he needs to lay out a clear vision for the future, he has more of a record than anyone else running.

Phil: That record is what I’m worried about. Next, I think Cutler has to find a way to be empathetic with ordinary Mainers. He is smart, has deep government experience and has become wealthy through his legal mind. Yet most Mainers see him as above them and distant.

Ethan: Agreed. Empathizing with us working class Mainers is something he has to communicate better. He earned a reputation last time of being more of a talker than a listener and he needs to reverse that ratio. In his rollout this week, he showed real emotion around what he wants to accomplish and the hopes and dreams his parents worked for on the streets of Bangor. That was good, but he has a long way to go.

Phil: My understanding is that he has one of the highest property tax bills in Cape Elizabeth due to the size and location of the home he built. I certainly don’t begrudge him what he has earned, but it becomes hard for Jane Q. Citizen to relate to someone who lives in that kind of opulence.

Ethan: Sen. Angus King is a good example. He is very wealthy (perhaps more so than Eliot), but he relates well to people and they feel like he understands their problems. I don’t have any doubt that Cutler understands our struggles intellectually, but he has to find his inner Bill Clinton and feel our pain.

Phil: Speaking of Bill Clinton, Eliot also has to convince people he is not simply another Democrat. So far, much of what I am hearing is pretty close to the platform of Michaud. He supports the Obamacare expansion, would have signed the budget into law (tax increase included), would raise the minimum wage, and would not have vetoed the background check bill.

Ethan: I am also surprised that he hasn’t drawn a clearer distinction between his policies and Mike’s. Cutler can’t simply run on a difference in style.

Phil: He has to differentiate himself in a way that is appealing to independents and disaffected Republicans. But I think he will be hard pressed to claim he’s the choice for conservative minded voters.

Ethan: The interesting dynamic is how the LePage team plays this out. Clearly they need Cutler to do well for them to win. Do they quietly prop Eliot up and keep their attacks solely on Michaud?

Phil: That’s a little too cynical for my taste, but if so, Eliot should accept their tactics by not talking about them. Rather point to his agenda and why it’s important to rise above these unproductive, even destructive, moves.

Ethan: Cynical? Maybe. But in reality this is a bit of what happened last time. LePage barely ever attacked Eliot last time and focused all his attention on Libby. By the time anyone noticed that Cutler was getting a free ride, it was too late and he caught lightening in a bottle. That said, you can’t run a campaign based on catching lightening twice.

Phil: Correct. That’s why Cutler needs to begin right now by finding a way to connect with people on Main Street.