AUGUSTA, Maine — U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud said Thursday he’s taking the first steps toward running for governor next year, announcing that he’s forming an exploratory committee and launching a website.

The Democratic congressman from Maine’s 2nd District has said for months he has been weighing a run for the Blaine House. His announcement about an exploratory committee and website,, is the first official step he has taken toward becoming a candidate.

Michaud said he’ll register a campaign committee with the Maine Ethics Commission in the next 10 days. He told the Bangor Daily News he plans to make a final decision “within the next couple of months.”

In an interview, Michaud pointed out differences between him and Gov. Paul LePage on both governing style and policy.

“It’s about governing style and being able to have an open mind, being able to bring both sides together and identify what the problem is and be able to find solutions to those problems,” he said.

As for policy differences, Michaud reiterated his support for expanding Medicaid in the state through the Affordable Care Act, something LePage opposes.

“We got that enhanced reimbursement rate” through the federal law, he said, noting Maine would receive a higher federal funding rate to cover more than 10,000 childless adults the state already covers. “Yet, that’s a policy that the administration has failed to accept. It doesn’t make sense.”

Michaud said an exploratory committee will help him “gauge the full extent of support” for a campaign. Announcing the committee now, he said, would give prospective candidates for his congressional seat time to weigh their options. Michaud, of East Millinocket, said he’ll remain in Congress if he enters the race for governor.

If Michaud becomes a candidate, it almost certainly sets up a three-way face-off in next year’s race. Independent Eliot Cutler, who placed second to Republican Gov. Paul LePage in 2010, said last week on WGAN radio that he planned to enter the race and would make a formal announcement in September.

LePage hasn’t formally announced a re-election bid, but he has registered a campaign committee with the ethics commission and has been raising money. A nonprofit group that evolved from his transition fund, Maine People Before Politics, has also been running campaign-style ads promoting LePage and his legislative policies in recent months.

Steve Woods, a businessman and Yarmouth Town Council chairman, is the only Democrat so far to declare formally his candidacy. David Slagger, a former Maliseet representative in the House, has also set up a campaign committee to run as a Green-Independent.

Brent Littlefield, LePage’s political adviser, characterized Michaud as a three-decade politician who has supported tax increases and “job-killing regulations” and helped grow the national debt during his time in Congress.

“Michaud has decided to make a political announcement on a day when his party has finally admitted they were wrong, with the Senate passing Gov. LePage’s plan to pay off Maine’s massive welfare hospital debt left behind by their last Democratic governor,” Littlefield said in a prepared response that urged voters not to “turn back to the failures of the past.”

Cutler welcomed Michaud to the race in a prepared statement and said the congressman’s departure from the U.S. House “will leave Maine weaker in Washington.” Cutler, of Cape Elizabeth, told Michaud in January he planned to run for governor under any circumstance, said Ted O’Meara, Cutler’s campaign manager.

“I look forward to a vigorous debate about Maine’s future,” Cutler’s statement said. “I am committed to running a positive campaign that engages Maine people around my plans to make government work again and to create jobs and opportunity for everyone in our state.”

Woods said he was disappointed by Michaud’s announcement, especially because it comes as lawmakers in Augusta and LePage face the prospect of a government shutdown if they don’t agree to a budget by June 30. “The last thing we need is more ‘announcements’ or the formation of another ‘exploratory committee,’” Woods said.

Michaud is serving his sixth term as the the 2nd District representative and recently became the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs. A number of Democrats have lobbied him to throw his hat into the ring for the Blaine House in hopes that the Maine Democratic Party can avoid a repeat of the 2010 gubernatorial race and the 2012 U.S. Senate race, when the party’s candidates placed third.

Michaud said the dynamics have changed since the 2010 race, clearing a path for a Democratic victory.

“One of the reasons my party has been pushing me to run is because they believe I’m the strongest Democratic candidate with the best chance to win,” he said. “I believe if I do enter the race, I will win.”

As Democrats searched for a candidate, former Gov. John Baldacci said he would consider running for his old job if Michaud and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District turned it down. Pingree said in April she wouldn’t run.

Democrats in Washington, D.C., have said they plan to make Maine’s gubernatorial race a priority next year. The Democratic Governors Association chairman, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, was among the number of Democrats who released statements praising Michaud after his announcement.

While recent polling has given Michaud high favorability ratings, the polling has also shown LePage could prevail in a three-way race. In a recent poll by the Portland firm Pan Atlantic SMS, Michaud trailed both LePage and Cutler in a three-way matchup.

Millinocket residents Joan King and Susan Caverly had mixed feelings about Michaud possibly running for governor. Both said he might make a good governor, but that they would hate to see him leave Congress, especially what they described as his fine work as an advocate for veterans.

“I have known him for 50 or 60 years,” said King, who is 81. “I think he can [be governor] all right. He has a lot of time in everywhere else. I think he would do well.”

“I would rather he stayed where he is,” Caverly said. “I think he can do more for us in D.C. than as a governor. Veterans need a lot of help, and with [U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe] gone, I think he would be more influential.”

“I think he’s a caring guy,” said Karen Lyons, a Medway resident. “He cares about what people think.”

Her husband, Medway Selectman Darrell Lyons, said it would be great for the Katahdin region, and northern Maine, to have a governor from, and understanding of, “the other State of Maine.”

“I think he should have no problem” getting elected to the governor’s office, Lyons said, “but you never know what they are going to do until they get there. Until they get there, you really don’t know what they are going to do and I really don’t think they know exactly what they are going to do, either.

“I am a Republican, but I am a Medway boy, so I would have to vote for him,” Lyons said. “Mike is a good man, and when he was in the state [capitol], he was a Moderate. I know he has a pretty liberal voting record, but down in Washington, [Democrats] control their people pretty well. I think he would be more moderate here.”

Lyons added that for Michaud to get elected, “he has to keep pushing that he worked at the mill. He’s a blue-collar guy. He’s for the little guy.”

BDN reporter Nick Sambides Jr. contributed to this report