Former Gov. Angus King today endorsed independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler at a surprise press conference in Portland. 

King’s endorsement marks the first time the former two-term governor has endorsed a gubernatorial candidate since serving two terms in the Blaine House from 1995 to 2003.

The announcement is a coup for Cutler, who along with Democrat Libby Mitchell, had been seeking King’s support.

“I really think Eliot Cutler is the right guy for the state in 2010,” King said at Cutler’s campaign headquarters.

King said he made up his mind Friday morning. He referred to two friends who talked to him about a possible endorsement.

One of his friends reminded him of an endorsement he got when he was one of 14 candidates for governor and the “longest of longshots.” It came from his best friend, the late Duane “Buzz” Fitzgerald, who was presdient of Bath Iron Works at the time.

“You know Buzz stepped up and you need to think about that,” the friend told King. “I did think about that.”

Another friend had urged King not to weigh in, saying there was nothing in it to benefit the former governor.

King said he rejected that thinking. “You really have to think about it in terms of what’s in it for the state.”

After leaving office, King had vowed not to get involved in a race for governor. But recently, he said he’d leave himself some “wiggle room.”

King said he’d been in contact with all three major candidates in the race.

Cutler, who was in Ellsworth on a campaign tour, phoned in during the Portland press conference Saturday afternoon.

“I am honored to have Gov. King’s support,” Cutler said. “He was a visionary governor who showed Maine and America that you don’t need a political party to be an effective leader, and that, indeed, an independent has a unique ability to bring people together to solve problems. I am deeply indebted to Angus King, not only for this endorsement, but for the credibility his success has given to independents like me who seek to follow in his footsteps.”

Campaign Manager Ted O’Meara said it’s too late in the campaign to include King in TV advertising, but Cutler’s campaign expects to run statewide radio ads with King voicing his endorsement starting Monday. King also is expected to  join Cutler at the final stop of his statewide campaign swing in Portland on Monday.

David Loughran, Mitchell’s campaign manager, said this week that Mitchell had also welcomed King’s support. Mitchell served as the House Speaker during one of King’s terms as governor, and Loughran said the two enjoyed a good working relationship.

From the Paul LePage campaign, spokesman Dan Demerit said the Republican candidate said: “Mayor LePage respects Governor King and his service, but like everyone, Angus has only one vote. Paul is pleased to have the support of Senators Snowe and Collins as well as the strong support of Maine voters in poll after poll.”

A Saturday press release said King was influenced in his endorsement by negative ads aimed at Cutler that say he helped send jobs overseas.

“The reason I’m here was I read one of the [flyers] about Eliot Cutler and China, and as I was looking at it I said to myself, ‘wait a minute, what we really need in this state is someone who has Maine roots and national and international experience.’ If we try to shut Maine down and close our borders, we’re dead ducks,” he said.

King also praised Cutler for refraining from negative campaigning.

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