Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler on Wednesday conceded that the contest has effectively become a two-way race — and that he’s not one of the two contenders.

“I am confident and hopeful, but I’m also a realist,” he said, referring to the plethora of polls that have indicated his campaign is lagging behind the two frontrunners, Republican incumbent Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.

At an impromptu news conference at his campaign’s Portland headquarters, Cutler said he would not drop out of the race, but repeated an earlier campaign statement, that if his supporters didn’t believe he could win come Election Day, they should choose someone else.

On Wednesday, he said his supporters should simply “vote their consciences,” even if that means casting a ballot for one of his opponents

“Anyone who has supported me, but who now worries that I cannot win and is thereby compelled by their fears or their conscience to vote instead for Mr. LePage or Mr. Michaud, should do so,” Cutler said.

Cutler said he was acknowledging “the gripping fear that is driving many voters — including many who wish that I would become governor — instead to back one of my opponents with a strategic vote against the other.”

As each new poll affirms a dead heat between LePage and Michaud, many in the Democrat’s camp have increased their calls for Cutler to drop out the race entirely.

Cutler was defiant, stating that he would not “kowtow to party politics and allow a bunch of political polls to drown out the voices of thousands of Mainers who believe that standing for principles, ideals and and ideas makes you an American, not a spoiler.”

He said he wasn’t dropping out but conceded that “winning is an extreme long shot.”

Despite the somewhat mixed message of his news conference, the Cutler campaign continued mostly as normal for the rest of Wednesday. The candidate traveled to Lewiston for several campaign events, and the campaign continued soliciting donations from supporters — sending out a fundraising email almost immediately after Cutler finished his remarks.

Though it was not the concession speech that Michaud’s supporters have hoped for, Cutler’s hastily assembled news conference marked a shift in tone for the independent candidate.

Cutler has consistently downplayed his struggling position in the polls, and said he expected to see a surge of support similar to the one that propelled him to a photo finish with LePage in 2010. As recently as Friday, Cutler had even called on Michaud to release his own supporters.

He banked on a strong performance in the gubernatorial debates to give his campaign a boost but, with the debates over, polls continue to show him lagging roughly 20 points behind his opponents.

Poll results released Tuesday by Pan Atlantic SMS indicated that Cutler’s supporters were beginning to defect to Michaud. The same poll also suggested that with Cutler out of the race, Michaud would beat LePage by roughly 5 percentage points.

Cutler on Wednesday decried what he described as a campaign “locked in the grip of fear,” caused by the more than $10 million that has been spent — largely for negative ads by Democratic and Republican groups — on the gubernatorial contest so far. He insinuated that his opponents’ solid bases of support had been “bought” with that money.

He also urged voters, no matter which candidate they choose on Nov. 4, to support a citizens’ initiative to implement ranked-choice voting. Proponents say that system prevents the so-called “spoiler effect,” concerns about which have dogged Cutler’s candidacy for more than a year.

Democrats have long contended that Michaud is the only candidate capable of beating the controversial LePage.

Michaud himself has spent most of the campaign ignoring Cutler, essentially refusing to recognize the three-way nature of the race. Recently, however, Michaud’s surrogates — including former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — have amped up the pressure on anti-LePage voters to coalesce around Michaud.

“Now is no time to be throwing a vote away,” Clinton said at a Democratic rally in Portland last week.

Republicans, meanwhile, have begun airing TV ads and distributing mailers supportive of Cutler, which Democrats have described as a cynical ploy to divide LePage’s opposition. Maine GOP officials on Wednesday said Cutler’s comments were a response to “bullying” by the Maine Democratic Party. They emphasized that Cutler was still very much in the race.

BDN State House Bureau Chief Christopher Cousins contributed to this report. Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...