BATH, Maine -- With his wispy gray-blond hair and moustache, independent Senate candidate Angus King is a familiar face to the Bath Iron Works shipyard workers who come streaming out to meet him. Most greet the lanky former two-term governor by his first name.
"Hello, Angus," says Steve Kent, a project engineer and a Democrat supporting King.
King shrugs off the familiarity – "Maine is a big small town" – but there is no doubt that King is becoming known in national politics, too, for vexing Republicans and Democrats fighting for control of the 100-seat Senate.
The slightly rumpled, 68-year-old former governor is running for the seat vacated by veteran Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, who abruptly announced her retirement this year out of frustration with the polarized nature of policymaking these days. Republicans need four seats to take control of the Senate, but King isn't a Republican. He's a former Democrat, but in 2012, he's not running as one. Instead, King is running as an independent, who, it's assumed, would caucus with Democrats if elected.
But he's not saying that, either. And he doesn't want to discuss it with party bigwigs who might want to cut wink-and-nod deals with him.
"I've let it be known that I really don't want to have those conversations," King says.
In a state where 40 percent of voters aren't members of either party, King's independence might explain his rare viability for a third-party candidate. But it's also complicating strategy for the national political parties, not to mention the actual Republican and Democratic candidates in the race.
Odd and colorful dynamics abound.
On the Democratic side, the contest has split the national and state parties, with Maine Democrats backing King's lagging Democratic rival, state Sen. Cynthia Dill. National Democrats, meanwhile, have invested heavily in advertising not for Dill, but against Republican Charlie Summers.
On the Republican side, one GOP-led group, hoping to drain votes from King, spent more than $300,000 for an ad urging Democrats to back Dill because of her "progressive" views. Republicans and outside groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have poured more than $1.7 million into commercials to boost Summers, Maine's secretary of state.
A Chamber ad hammered the former governor as "the king of spending." King fired back with an ad that accused "folks from away" _out-of-state groups like the Chamber – of painting him a Godzilla. Footage of a monster stomping through a town played over the candidate's voice.
Showmanship isn't new to King, who hosted the "Maine Watch" TV show for 18 years before becoming one of the state's most popular governors in 1995. Critics say his wealth – nearly $570,000 annually for the past seven years, his tax records show_ put him out of touch with average Mainers.
"Angus is the wine-and-cheese crowd," Summers said in a recent interview. "I represent the kind of people who work with their hands."
Summers, 52, has a small business background. He's a Navy reservist who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's against raising taxes and wants to get federal spending and the nation's debt under control. Maine's moderate GOP senators, Snowe and Susan Collins, have endorsed him. But while Collins has actively campaigned for Summers, Snowe hasn't.
Snowe was stung when Summers, a former aide, declined to endorse her against a potential tea party primary challenger. Summers said he declined because he had recently become the state's top elections official and didn't want to appear too partisan.
Snowe's new political action committee is flush with about $500,000 to boost "consensus-building" moderates like herself. Yet Snowe won't use any of that money to help Summers because she's decided not to spend on current candidates.
Three-way races are notoriously tricky to handicap.
King, a former Democrat who backs President Obama but who also supported George Bush in 2000, won't say whether he'd caucus with Senate Democrats or Republicans if he's elected. He says an independent voice is needed to break Washington's partisan gridlock.
"I'll see what's going on when I get down there and what's best for Maine and the country," he said.
In an evenly divided Senate, King could wield significant clout in deciding which party could control the chamber.
That poses a strategic dilemma for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which declined to endorse Dill while hoping King, a former Democrat, would eventually line up with Senate Democrats.
Only recently, after King's slide in the polls, the DSSC began airing more than $400,000 in TV ads accusing Summers of "marching with Washington extremists."
King's independence could create an opening for Republicans who hope to capitalize on King and Dill splitting Democratic and independent votes to pave the way for a Summers win.
Dill, 47, said she's heard plenty of voters fret that her candidacy could tip the race to Summers, but she'll keep fighting because no one else is standing up for her progressive values.
King's lead over Summers has fallen from 30 percentage points in June to 22 points, a recent poll published by the Maine Sunday Telegram showed. King led Summers 50-28 percent while Dill had 12 percent.
King has hit back with an ad accusing Summers of favoring subsidies for big oil and a pledge against new taxes that King says makes it impossible to solve the deficit.
Maine has a long tradition of independents: Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, often split with her party during her four terms before losing in 1972. And during Watergate, Maine Republican William Cohen broke ranks as a congressman and voted to impeach former President Richard Nixon. Cohen later became defense secretary in the Clinton administration.
"Maine's an independent state that votes the person, not the party," said Laura Garland, a 37-year old bartender and waitress from Bangor who is a Democrat backing King and Obama.
Jeff Jones, 42, a supervisor at Bath Iron Works, is a Republican who plans to vote for King and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Jones and Garland said they're not bothered by King's refusal to wear a party label.
"You vote for a man's integrity," said Jones. "I like Angus."