By DAVID SHARPAssociated Press
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - It's big money and Godzilla in Maine's six-way race for retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe's seat.
The campaign cash, more than $1 million in attack ads, comes from Republicans trying to paint front-runner Angus King, a former two-term independent governor, as an unpredictable spender of taxpayer money.
"Mainers can't afford to send this King to Washington," says one ad, sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is spending more than $500,000 in TV advertising in the state.
King says they're trying to make him look like a scary monster in a race the GOP never expected and, seven weeks before Election Day, look poised to lose.
"You know better," King, 68, tells voters in his own ad, touting his fiscal track-record over footage of Godzilla stomping through a town. "Folks from away," King says of outside interest groups pumping cash into the race, "might think we were born at night up here, but it wasn't last night."
King supports President Barack Obama's re-election, but what scares Senate Republicans most is that if King wins the election, he will align himself with Democrats. King has not committed to caucusing with either party, and the state's largest voter bloc has no party affiliation.
The GOP was virtually assured of keeping the Senate seat before Snowe abruptly abandoned the race, causing a complication in the party's broader drive to gain four seats and control of the chamber. That goal seemed in reach a few months ago, but developments in other Senate races have clouded the GOP's chances of attaining it in the Nov. 6 elections. Maine's multiple-candidate race does nothing to improve the prospects.
So conservatives are pumping money into the state, attacking King as a Democrat in an independent's clothing. In addition to the chamber of commerce, Senate Republicans are adding about $600,000 to help GOP Secretary of State Charlie Summers keep the seat in the party's hands.
"Angus talks about being an umpire or a referee," Summers, 53, said of King's vow to start the process of repairing the polarized Congress. "Umpires and referees don't win games. People who stand for something do."
Also in the Senate race are Democrat Cynthia Dill, 47, who says she is the best candidate to represent the middle class, and three other independents.
That there is a competitive race at all in Maine was a surprise to the political world. Snowe is retiring after this year. She is one of the few centrists left in the Senate, where, she said, partisanship often trumps good policymaking.
"She left in complete and utter frustration. When she said that, it struck me that we have to try it a different way," King, formerly a Democrat, said in debate Monday night. Earlier, he described how that different way would work: "As an independent, I'll be able to choose my positions based on the facts, the science and the data, not what someone tells me is the party line," King said.
It's a potent prospect after years of partisan gridlock that has dropped Congress' approval ratings to record lows. But independent senators traditionally choose a party to caucus with, in a give-and-take relationship that gives them a shot at influence in the sharply divided, seniority-driven chamber. Currently, independent Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont caucus with majority Democrats - who, in turn, made Lieberman chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.
Forced into a race they didn't expect, Republicans are pounding King. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce aired ads during NBC's prime-time Olympics coverage calling him "king of spending." The National Republican Senatorial Committee's ads accuse him of exploiting political connections to secure federal loan guarantees for a wind power project. And another GOP-led super PAC, Maine Freedom, took a different tack, spending more than $300,000 on TV ads urging Democrats to stick with Dill, a "bold progressive," in hopes of taking votes from King.
Dill isn't getting similar financial backing from Democratic groups.
Despite the attacks, King is considered the front-runner.
After the June primaries, King was favored by 55 percent of surveyed voters, compared with 27 percent support for Summers and 7 percent for Dill in a poll commissioned by The Portland Press Herald. Nine percent were undecided.
The GOP cites internal polling that suggests King may be losing ground.
King's message of political independence rings true with many in a state that has twice elected independent governors.
And for his part, King touts his record for cutting taxes, making targeted infrastructure investments, bolstering the state's rainy day fund, setting aside land for conservation and winning high marks for Maine's bond rating.
Republicans, meanwhile, say King expanded state spending during the dot-com bubble and left the next governor with what would've been a $1 billion shortfall without budgetary adjustments.
Summers said voters aren't talking so much about politics as their fears of growing debt. They're connecting, he said, with his story as a one-time a motel manager, a widower and father, state lawmaker and a Navy reservist who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When I'm out on the campaign trail, people aren't talking about the process. They're talking about getting spending under control," Summers said.
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