BRUNSWICK, Me. – Angus King is the prohibitive favorite to win the open Senate seat in Maine this year, and it is easy to see why.
At a town-hall-style meeting to discuss technology issues here the other day, he showed a smooth rapport with the audience. They seemed impressed by his knowledge, chuckled at his dry wit and generally bathed in the warm glow of familiarity as he made casual references to his family and his two terms as governor.
This is the calm before the storm.
“A huge negative campaign is about to start,” said Juliana L’Heureux, 66, a politically active nurse who came here to see Mr. King and who likes him so much that she held a fund-raiser for him at her home. “Thank God he has a huge reservoir of good will, because he’s going to have to draw that down as things get nastier.”
Early polling shows Mr. King, an independent, way ahead of his rivals – a Republican, a Democrat and three other independents. But being the front-runner also makes him the punching bag, and it is unclear whether Mr. King, 68, who seems invincible now, can sustain his lead as the campaign unfolds. He has been out of office for almost a decade and has not faced a competitive campaign since 1994, before the Internet and “super PACs” became such forces in politics.
“By the time Labor Day gets here, this race will have a very different complexion,” Charles Summers, the Maine secretary of state and the Republican nominee, said in an interview. “It’s fair to say it will be important to have a thick skin.”
Conservatives see Mr. King as a big spender who left the state with a deficit when his second term ended in 2003. Liberals are unhappy over some basic blue-collar issues, like his opposition to raising the minimum wage. Both sides question his involvement in a wind power project that last year won a $102 million loan guarantee financed by a federal stimulus program. And both are annoyed over his vow to wait until after Election Day to reveal which party he would align himself with in Washington, though that approach seems to appeal to the majority of voters in Maine.
But what really upsets Republicans is that they did not expect to have to defend this seat in their overall effort to regain control of the Senate. Olympia J. Snowe, a popular three-term Republican incumbent, appeared headed to re-election until she announced in February that the polarization in Washington was too frustrating and that she would not run again.
Mr. King stepped in and said he would run as an independent. But his record, and his announced intention of voting for President Obama, suggests a likely alliance with the Democrats. The nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report now puts Maine in the “leans Democratic” column.
Maine is suddenly one of a handful of states that could determine the balance of power in the Senate, making it fertile territory for outside super PACs to start running negative advertisements against Mr. King.
But Mr. Summers, the Republican nominee, and Cynthia Dill, the Democratic nominee, have to persuade their potential donors that they are worth the investment. A poll in mid-June by the Boston public radio station WBUR showed Mr. King with the support of 50 percent of likely voters, Mr. Summers with 23 percent and Ms. Dill with 9 percent. The telephone poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Ms. Dill has the backing of the state’s Democratic Party, but the national Democratic Party and the national groups that traditionally get involved in House and Senate races are holding back to see if Ms. Dill can gain traction in the polls.
“At the national level, the silence is deafening,” Ms. Dill said in an interview in the offices of the state party in Portland. “I don’t have any unrealistic expectations. They want someone who not only shares their values, but is viable as well.”
But, she added, “my poll numbers have nowhere to go but up, and I believe Angus has reached his high-water mark.”
Mr. King’s candidacy has caused angst among some Maine Democrats. They like him and expect that he would generally support the Democrats in Washington. But they recall all too well the election for governor here in 2010, when an independent candidate divided the Democrats and allowed the Tea Party-backed candidate, Paul R. LePage, to squeak through. They also lost both houses of the Legislature.
Mike Saxl, a Democrat and former speaker of the State House, has become a co-chairman of Mr. King’s campaign. He acknowledged that his support for Mr. King had “raised some eyebrows,” but he said he had worked closely with the former governor and believed he was ready to step into the Senate job “on Day 1.”
Mr. Saxl said Democrats who were sticking with Ms. Dill were “less concerned about the values that Angus brings to the table” and more concerned about the institution of the Democratic Party after the 2010 debacle.
One concern is that as Ms. Dill criticizes Mr. King – she says he is more focused on the workings of the United States Senate than on the working families in Maine – she could potentially weaken him and strengthen Mr. Summers.
“The Democrats want to avoid what happened in 2010,” said Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine. “They won’t say it on the record, but as Cynthia keeps pounding away, they just cringe.”
Ben Grant, the chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, said the party was backing Ms. Dill “100 percent.” For now, he said, that means trying to increase her standing in the polls by introducing her to voters, not by attacking Mr. King.
But Mr. Grant said that his long-term goal as a Democrat was for Mr. Obama to succeed, and that Maine needed “members of the Senate we can trust to support his agenda,” a reference to Mr. King’s insistence that he would “vote my conscience,” not party lines.
In an interview at his bustling campaign headquarters here, where pictures of Robert F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan hang side by side, Mr. King said of the Republicans: “I’ll support them when I think they’re right, and I’ll support Obama when I think he’s right.”
Mr. King said that while voters were not yet talking about some of the matters that concerned him, like his push to end the filibuster, he expected that they would be once the campaign picked up.
“Don’t get the impression I’m not interested in issues,” Mr. King said. “But I think the overriding issue is the functioning of the Senate. You can’t do health care or the deficit or the economy or anything else if the Senate itself doesn’t work.”
Mr. King said he did not expect to spend any of his own money beyond the $37,000 he had lent himself to start his campaign. He tried to get the other candidates to agree to penalties if super PACs got involved on their behalf, but he was not successful. As it happens, Mr. King is so far the only beneficiary of such support, from a group called icPurple, started by Ted Waitt, the founder of the Gateway computer company.
“I’m afraid we’re in for it,” Mr. King said of the expected flood of outside money. “I don’t think any of us are fully prepared for what’s coming.”