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In Maine, Republicans and Democrats are both counting on victory in the race for a coveted Senate seat. But it may be that neither party wins. The seat currently belongs to Olympia Snowe, a Republican, and she's not seeking re-election. But now there's a potential spoiler for both parties, an independent candidate, former Maine Governor Angus King.

Here's reporter Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: He's been retired from politics for nearly a decade but two-term Governor Angus King still has the kind of approval rating most politicians dream about - 62 percent, according to a recent poll. And now, on the verge of turning 68, he's decided he wants to run for Senate as an independent. The same poll gives him the lead in a potential three-way race.

King says if he wins he might help break the partisan gridlock that grips Congress.

ANGUS KING: And I don't have any illusions that I'm naively going to go down and Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are going to say Angus, tell us how to do this. I mean I know that's not going to work. But I think number one, my election would send a significant message. And number two, it might provoke similar movements in other states. If there were four or five people like me, that would change the whole dynamic.

SHARON: As Governor King is probably best known for championing a program that provides laptops for students. More recently, he's been working on wind power development, and teaching a popular course on leaders and leadership at Bowdoin College.

When he first ran for governor in 1994, King was largely unknown; a lawyer and part-time public television talk show host, who'd amassed a small fortune working in alternative energy and conservation.

He rides a Harley, wrote a book about his family's five month odyssey traveling the country in an RV, and says former chief of staff Kay Rand was planning a second road trip. She had lunch with him just a few days before Senator Snowe announced she would not run.

KAY RAND: He was proudly showing me the pictures of the RV and never once did a conversation about elected office come up. Not once.

SHARON: Once King did make up his mind to run, Rand says hers was made up, too. She'll take a leave of absence from her job to work as his campaign manager.

RAND: He still doesn't know whether he's going to be able to make a difference, but he has to try.

SHARON: King hasn't even gathered the required signatures to assure a place on Maine's ballot, but his intentions are already drawing fire from the National Republican Senatorial Committee. That's because King has been coy about saying whether he would caucus with Democrats or Republicans in Washington. He says he'd prefer to go it alone.

The NRSC doesn't buy that. King did endorse President Obama, after all, and no big name Democrat will be getting in the race. In a recent online ad, Republicans accused King of cutting a secret deal with the Democrats to run for Snowe's seat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Where there's smoke, there's fire. Maine deserves better than smoke-filled backroom deals.

ANGUS KING: It's total bunk. If this weren't a family radio station, I would use a stronger term.

SHARON: King says the ad only proves his point that the status quo in Washington has to be challenged. As an independent governor who had a Democratic-controlled house and a Republican-controlled senate, King became adept at forming coalitions to pass legislation, says former Republican State Senator Phil Harriman.

PHIL HARRIMAN: I think what's going to be interesting to see is - can Angus King make the transition from the chief executive officer of a state to one of 100 legislators where it's a whole different mindset.

SHARON: King tends to be fiscally conservative. As governor, he vetoed several Democrat-backed labor bills, including one to raise the minimum wage. He's more liberal on social issues - abortion rights and same sex marriage, for example, and he knows how to grab headlines. He once dove into a river fully clothed during a news conference to announce a pollution cleanup plan.

But the most important thing to know about him, says former Democratic House Speaker Mike Saxl, is that he's a thinking person's politician who happens to have the gift of gab.

MIKE SAXL: And as a result, he can effectively communicate complicated ideas in a rather straightforward way and that's a huge asset when you're working in politics.

SHARON: As an independent, King will need those assets and more if he's to prevail in a senate race that's already lining up to be one of the most watched in the country and one of the most expensive in Maine history.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon.

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