By Thomas Ferraro
BRUNSWICK, Maine (Reuters) - It has been nearly a decade since Angus King finished his second term as Maine's governor, loaded his family into a recreational vehicle and set off on a 5 1/2-month road trip across America, his presumed farewell to politics.
Now, at 68, King not only is back in politics, he may become an unlikely power broker in the divided U.S. Senate after the November 6 elections.
King, a soft-spoken, motorcycle-riding independent, is favored to win the Senate seat being vacated by moderate Republican Olympia Snowe, who in announcing her retirement in February said she was fed up with partisan gridlock in the Senate after more than 17 years there.
For King - who polls indicate is perhaps the most popular political figure in Maine - Snowe's grim assessment of the Capitol became a calling. King told Reuters that he would not have returned to public life if Snowe had not been so emphatic in her disappointment about the state of the Senate.
"Her reason for not running is my sole motivation to run," King said. "When I left as governor, I figured I'd never again run for anything."
President Barack Obama's Democrats now hold the Senate, 53-47. But with one-third of the chamber's seats up for election, Republicans have an opportunity to close the gap. If Republicans can gain two or three seats and King can hold off Democratic and Republican challengers, he could be in position to determine which party would control a divided Senate in 2013.
King is widely viewed as conservative on fiscal issues and more liberal on social matters such as abortion rights, which he supports.
He said he wants to dive into the ugly mess that Congress has become because he believes that most Americans, unlike many of their elected lawmakers, are solidly in the political middle and desperate for more lawmakers willing to compromise like him.
"It sounds corny, but I feel that I have an obligation to at least try," he said after a recent pair of campaign events that drew hundreds of backers of various political stripes. "I may be at the right place at the right time."
A MIX OF POLITICAL HEROES
At a time when political moderates such as Snowe are disappearing in Washington, King - who made millions in the alternative energy business and once was a popular host on public television in Maine - is a bipartisan throwback.
Pictures of two disparate political icons, former Republican president Ronald Reagan and former Democratic senator Robert Kennedy, hang side by side in King's campaign headquarters. King recently added the picture of a third: Margaret Chase Smith.
Smith was a moderate Republican from Maine whose more than three decades in Congress were highlighted by a 1950 Senate speech in which she gave a blistering critique of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy's hunt for communists.
Like Reagan, Smith was bold on defense: In the early 1960s she pressed President John Kennedy to be willing to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union, prompting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to call Smith "the devil in disguise of a woman."
King said he wants to encourage an end to the no-compromise sentiment that has hung over stalemates on government spending and debt during the last two years.
Congress' approval ratings have fallen to record lows as warring lawmakers have pushed the United States to the brink of a government shutdown and an unprecedented default on the nation's debt. At the same time, they have failed to agree on plans to either create jobs or deal with the deficit through government spending cuts and tax increases.
"We can't get to the jobs issue if the Senate doesn't work," King said. "We can't get to the debt and deficit, if the Senate doesn't work."
DEMOCRATS SEE AN ALLY
So what does Angus King stand for, and which party might he side with if he is elected?
King is coy on the latter, but Republican and Democratic leaders believe he would side with Democrats.
Two decades ago, King left the Democratic Party to make an independent run for governor in Maine, a state where progressive and blue-collar voters combine to form an electorate that is not particularly Democratic or Republican.
In the 2000 White House race, King voted for Republican George W. Bush, impressed by Bush's vow to be a "compassionate conservative." In 2004, a disappointed King said he voted for Bush's Democratic challenger, John Kerry.
Now King backs Obama, as well as the president's healthcare overhaul that is being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court - and that has been a target for Republicans.
King declines to give his stance on the tax cuts passed during Bush's administration that are due to expire at the end of the year unless Congress renews them.
Republicans want to renew the cuts for those at all income levels; Obama and his fellow Democrats favor extending the cuts only for families earning less than $250,000 annually.
Without embracing either position, King says, "The tax structure must be reformed to lower rates, close loopholes and ensure that everyone is paying their fair share."
As for reducing the record U.S. debt, which now tops $16 trillion, King says in a position paper that "all options must be on the table." He expressed interest in ideas proposed by a commission headed by former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, a chief of staff to Democratic President Bill Clinton.
In 2010, the Simpson-Bowles panel called for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases to trim the debt by $4 trillion over a decade. Obama declined to embrace the plan and it ran aground, although the concept is gaining new momentum as Congress faces a "fiscal cliff" of expiring tax cuts and mandatory reductions in spending that could slam the economy.
National Democratic leaders' confidence that King would side with them seems evident in their limited support of Cynthia Dill, a civil rights lawyer and Maine state senator who is the Democrat opposing King. Also in the race is Republican Charles Summers, Maine's secretary of state.
King said he won't decide which party he would caucus with in Washington until he is elected.
Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said that "the conventional wisdom seems to hold that King would caucus with Democrats. But he is unpredictable, and the conventional wisdom could be dead wrong."
A recent poll indicated that 50 percent of Maine voters favored King in the Senate race, compared with 23 percent for Summers and 9 percent for Dill.
King's popularity stems from his record as governor, when he backed measures to upgrade schools, improve care for the elderly and trim regulations on businesses.
His support comes from Maine's sizable political middle, and he draws criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.
Conservatives denounce King as a big-spending liberal who, as governor, headed a costly expansion of access to healthcare. Some liberals, meanwhile, remain angry at King because he vetoed an increase in the state's minimum wage.
Some critics dismiss King as a has-been.
"He's a nice guy, but I think he peaked," said Maine Republican Party Chairman Charles Webster.
King rejects such criticism but declines to fight back with negative campaign ads. His campaign is advised by what he calls a "tri-partisan" advisory board - three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents.
At a recent rally in Augusta, King criticized the dysfunction in the Democrat-led U.S. Senate.
"I'm neither arrogant enough or naive enough to think I can go to Washington by myself and fix this," King said. "But I do think that there are some ways that I can be a precipitator, the pebble in the pond that starts the ripple of serious change."
The crowd of a few hundred people, from college students to retirees, roared its approval.
King said his election could send a message to both parties that more people like him may be coming to Washington.
"I'm their worst nightmare," King said. "Ten of me would be a really bad nightmare. I'm unaligned and unencumbered."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Lisa Shumaker)