Maine's voters have long had an independent streak, having elected… (Joel Page, Associated Press )
RANGELEY, Maine — The man who may tip the balance of power in the U.S. Senate next year was being introduced to the runner-up champion moose caller.
This being Maine, the two had met before.
Angus King has off-the-charts name recognition in the state, largely positive, from two terms as governor to which he was elected during the economically robust 1990s. Now, in the race to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, that familiarity has made him the front-runner.
In fact, Mainers respond quizzically when asked about "Gov. King," a spry 68-year-old with a mop of still mostly sandy hair who campaigns in blue jeans and worn-out Top-Siders. "Oh, you mean Angus?" they'll ask.
"I think he's going to clean up," said Matt Tinker, the moose caller, after demonstrating his winning sounds — surprisingly similar to the bugling noise of vuvuzelas at World Cup soccer matches — at the mountaintop Rangeley Moose Lottery Festival, where hunters win coveted shooting permits.
King is again campaigning as an independent, stressing his freedom from both parties, just as he did in his races for governor. If elected, the affable King could become one of the most influential politicians in Washington. With Republicans trying to take over the Senate, a 50-49 split is possible not counting the Snowe seat. If King wins, his choice of which party to back could decide who controls the upper house.
Maine's voters have long had an independent streak, sending not only Snowe, a moderate Republican, to the Senate, but William Cohen, the Republican who became President Clinton's secretary of Defense, and the trailblazing Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both chambers of Congress.
But it is unclear, with today's highly polarized politics, if Maine will send another.
Snowe's sudden announcement that she would not seek reelection after 34 years in the House and Senate jolted the political establishment here, a temperate state not prone to extremes. She blamed the pervasive "atmosphere of polarization" for her departure, unable to imagine a truce any time soon.
The senator's decision catapulted King out of political retirement. While Snowe has wearied of Washington's stalemate, King says he relishes the challenge.
"I'm not so naive or arrogant to think I can go down by myself and change it, but you got to start somewhere," King said at his campaign headquarters on a picturesque street of bustling storefronts in downtown Brunswick that, like much of Maine, seems a throwback to easier times.
"A guy said something to me that I think is really funny — I don't know if I ought to tell you this, I don't know how this going to play in print — but he said, 'You know, I've always wanted to vote for none of the above — and you're it.' "
As this era pushes candidates toward the extremes, King remains something novel: a measured voice.
A native Virginian who first arrived in Maine with President Johnson's legal corps during the War on Poverty, King says what he really wants to do in Washington is reform the way the place works — stretch across the aisle, get money out of politics and clip the minority party's ability to use the filibuster to block legislation at every turn.
To reinforce his point, he reached into his pocket and showed off a smartphone app of the Constitution and other founding documents, a habit he shares with tea party candidates. His enthusiasm matched his confidence.
"I'm uniquely situated to try and crack this," he said.
As he travels to bean supper dinners and town halls, King has been engaged in a unique conversation with voters here, declining to say which party he would caucus with if sent to the Senate. He tells voters he will choose a party only if it allows him the freedom to stray from orthodoxy on crucial votes.
Independence is a popular calling card in Maine, where more than a third of the voters are not aligned with a major party. "We're fond of independent candidates," said Kenneth T. Palmer, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Maine at Orono. "Mainers tend to bend toward the center."
The state's voters seem inclined to extend King their trust, but like those across the nation they are also restless. And it is unclear how long he can maintain his elusive stance, which has opened the genteel statesman with the Civil War-era mustache to attacks from the left and right — both coming with full force.
To keep the seat in party hands, Republicans are expecting an avalanche of outside campaign cash to help portray the former governor as a closet liberal who voted for Barack Obama, which he did.
But he also voted for George W. Bush.
The first attack arrived in commercial breaks during the Olympics, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and questioned the $1-billion deficit King left the state as governor. King's campaign responded swiftly with a posse of supportive business leaders and a civics lesson in real-versus-structural deficits.