PORTLAND – A leader of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission urged Mainers on Sunday to demand that Congress reduce the nation’s debt — and to elect former Gov. Angus King to the U.S. Senate.

“I’m telling you I can use a bridge like this guy who can go between the two parties,” Erskine Bowles said. “It would make such a difference.”

Bowles, a Democrat who was President Clinton’s chief of staff, said the nation is facing a financial crisis, and partisanship in Congress is preventing compromise on the kinds of spending cuts and tax increases needed to avoid it.

He spoke to about 300 people Sunday afternoon at the University of Southern Maine as part of a “town hall” campaign event for King. Bowles endorsed King to replace Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, in a column published in the Portland Press Herald on Saturday.

“We need people (in Congress) who are going to make the tough choices,” Bowles told the audience. “If we don’t, we’re on a path to becoming a second-rate power before you know it.”

Bowles and former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming were appointed by President Obama to lead the bipartisan debt commission. The so-called Simpson-Bowles plan, released last year, called for reducing the national debt by $4 trillion by 2020, mostly through spending cuts, but its recommendations ran into opposition from both parties.

Bowles said the nation’s debt, if not cut, will soon reduce economic growth, cause borrowing costs and debt payments to rise and suck even more money away from basic programs and investments in education and health care, he said.

King also said the debt must be a top priority for Congress. “Do nothing and we’re Greece within 20 years,” he said.

Republicans have criticized King for overseeing growth in state spending during his eight years as governor, and leaving office when revenues were falling and the state faced a nearly $1 billion gap between anticipated income and expenses.

Bowles, however, said King’s experience balancing eight budgets as governor makes him well qualified. King would have balanced the ninth budget, too, if he wasn’t leaving office, he said. And the fact that King is running as an independent will help break through the partisanship that is preventing action to reduce the debt.

“He knows how to lead and I think he can make an enormous difference,” Bowles said. “He balanced the budget every year (while governor). He left a rainy day fund with more money in it than when he got there.”

Maine’s so-called rainy day fund grew from about $7 million to as much as $143 million under King, according to his campaign staff. The fund was drawn down to $23 million in 2003 to help balance the budget as the economy slowed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

King spoke about when he came into office as governor in 1995 and reduced the state work force by more than 1,000 positions, or 10 percent, because the state was facing a budget gap of about $400,000. He said the federal debt crisis also will require smarter decisions about spending.

“It’s going to involve some cuts in spending that people aren’t going to like,” King said.

King called the Simpson-Bowles commission’s plan a good framework, although he doesn’t agree with all the recommendations in it. “There are some things I’m not too fond of and in fact some things I don’t think I can support,” he said, without getting into the details.

Bowles said there are parts he doesn’t like, too, but that what’s needed is compromise around the framework. King could be a bridge in the Senate between Republicans who won’t accept tax increases and Democrats who won’t accept spending cuts.

“Those guys in the middle, four or five on either side, are going to have all the power and he’s going to be one of them,” Bowles said. “I think just one guy can make a big difference.”

Bowles’ appearance with King drew criticism from the spokesman for Republican Senate candidate Charlie Summers, who again highlighted the spending growth under King and the fiscal struggle Maine faced when he left office in 2003.

“For Angus to sit alongside Erskine Bowles and masquerade as being tough on the national debt is the height of hypocrisy,” said Drew Brandewie, spokesman for Summers.

Summers, Maine’s secretary of state, said in a written statement last week that reducing the debt is a priority and that he supports “the broad concepts” of Simpson-Bowles. However, while he would work to close tax loopholes, Summers said he would stick by a pledge to oppose any tax increases.

“I would be an active participant in any bipartisan group working towards a large debt-reduction package, but I don’t subscribe to the theory that such a groundbreaking effort could only be achieved by raising taxes,” Summers said.

King’s Democratic rival, state Sen. Cynthia Dill, said in a written statement that Congress needs to pass a debt-reduction plan, but that the Simpson-Bowles version is too heavy on cutting programs such as Social Security that serve working families.

“The so-called austerity measures that are proposed are too Darwinian in nature. The people at the top keep getting breaks; the people at the bottom are left behind.”

Summers and Dill both disagreed that their respective parties are preventing a solution to the debt problem.

Summers said Maine senators have shown they can be strong leaders without having to abandon their party. And Dill blamed Republicans for blocking Obama’s debt-reduction plan.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com