Does the debate matter?

Is the race for the Blaine House over?

On the cusp of the second televised gubernatorial debate, some of the state’s top political hands say the die has been cast, thanks to a shoddy performance by Democrat Mike Michaud and a strong showing from Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

“LePage has been doing far better than people expected, Michaud a little worse, and [independent Eliot] Cutler exactly as everyone thought. Unless LePage says something horrible, I think the trajectory of this race is set,” said a Maine Republican political operative not working in the race.

The GOP hand says that means LePage is likely set-up for re-election.

Another experienced Republican political consultant agrees LePage is looking like the likely winner, but thinks Monday’s debate could still factor in.

“I would not overstate the importance, but it is a high profile event in a very close and rapidly approaching election,” he said.

“I thought that the last debate was very significant,” he added. “Mike had a bad night. There is a whisper campaign suggesting that he is not up to the job … That can really hurt him in the 1st District where he desperately needs left leaning independents to support him. The governor is running away with the 2nd District vote – another performance like the last one could start erosion for Mike in the south.”

But the Republican, who is not working the gubernatorial race, adds LePage’s long-time liability of running his mouth is always a potential landmine waiting to happen.

“The governor surprised many people with his command of the issues. If he focuses on the issues, he should do extremely well in the debate,” he said. “The wildcard, of course, is his unpredictability.”

But a Democratic campaign expert sees a strong finish for Michaud on the horizon.

“I actually think Mike is in a good position and Cutler supporters know there is only one candidate that can beat LePage,” he said.

The first GOP consultant agrees a slim chance remains for Michaud, depending on Cutler’s decision to stay in the race.

“The Cutler dynamic I think will need to change in order for Michaud to get back on his feet,” he said. “Eliot’s TV buy this week is [really light], which makes me think maybe there’s still a chance he gets out.”

Recent polling shows Michaud and LePage vying for the lead, with Cutler a distant third.

Update: This post was updated to properly couch an estimation of the Cutler campaign’s ad buy.

Rebekah Metzler

About Rebekah Metzler

Rebekah Metzler is a breaking news editor for CNN's digital politics team in Washington. Previously, she was a senior news editor with U.S. News and World Report, where she began her three-year tenure as a political writer. She spent much of 2012 on the road covering the presidential campaign in battleground states across the country. Metzler proudly tells all who will listen she hails from the great state of Maine where she covered state politics for the Lewiston Sun Journal and MaineToday Media. Metzler earned her master’s degree in journalism from Boston University and her undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College.