Charlie Summers, the Republican nominee and Maine's secretary of state, calls King a "huckster" who is selling a false bill of goods. He argues that King would join the Democrats if elected. (King and Democratic leaders insist they have not spoken.)
"He's cultivated this image of himself as this independent guy, but there's really not much independent about him," said Summers, 52, a Navy reservist who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He cut a ramrod straight stride in a pressed white polo shirt and khakis as he walked in an evening parade through historic urban Biddeford, a onetime textile powerhouse on the coast, south of Portland. "People ask me, how are you going to beat Angus King? My answer is he's going to beat himself."
Summers dismisses King's steady double-digit lead in the polls as "nostalgic remembrance" of a time before the financial downturn. One recent public survey, done in June for the Portland Press Herald, had the race at 55% for King, 27% for Summers and 7% for the Democrat, Cynthia Dill.
National Democratic leaders have shown little interest in Dill, a fiery state senator who surprised the establishment with a long-shot primary victory.
A civil rights lawyer, Dill, 47, compares King's reform message to "macaroni and cheese" — political comfort food — that fails to address the reality of partisan politics.
"He rides in on his white horse and says he's going to save the two-party system," said Dill, in her home office near the postcard-pretty Cape Elizabeth shore, where her Apple computer sports a "99%" sticker, a nod to the Occupy movement. "The reality is there's an insurgent group of Republicans in Washington who don't want to compromise and they're perfectly open about it. You can't pretend they're not there."
Strategists on the left and right think the emerging three-way race could hurt King. In the 2010 election for governor, Democrats and moderates split their votes between Democrat Libby Mitchell and independent Eliot Cutler, and the most conservative candidate — Republican Paul LePage — was elected.
King has not campaigned like this since he left the governor's office in 2003 and boarded a motor home with his wife and family for a 15,000-mile sojourn through 34 states.
But he believes he has "stumbled onto a very powerful political movement," this idea of independence. King's fundraising dwarfed that of his opponents in the first half of the year, with almost $1 million raised and more than $500,000 left to spend. His headquarters stirs with advisors and volunteers working away. And a mini-army of "Angus interns," inspired by King's campaign, is streaming into Maine.
After spending the afternoon at the moose hunting lottery, King headed to the clubhouse of the Rangeley Region Guides & Sportsmen's Assn. When he walked in, he was immediately greeted by many who had settled in at a crowded supper. He pulled up a chair as an evening rain gathered outside.
"Where else would I be on a Saturday night?"