The four major candidates running to replace U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud couldn’t be much more different from each other, charting different paths about three months out from a June primary.

Two of them are Democratic state senators. One of those is an outspoken, anti-abortion logger born and bred in northern Aroostook County; the other, a young transplant to a university town who is known for compromise.

On the Republican side, a former legislative leader who got his political start under a famous moderate is taking on a wealthy businessman who recently moved to the district, running hard to his opponent’s right.

Later this year, the governor’s race will get the most headlines; but the campaign in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District may be the most interesting — now and approaching November. National campaign committees have made the race a high priority.

Earlier this month, Democrats placed it among their 35 top-priority districts nationwide, a distinction that a news release said will come with monetary and other types of support for the primary winner, probably either Maine Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, of Allagash, or Sen. Emily Cain, of Orono. Alden Smith, a Navy reservist from Sangerville, announced Monday he is dropping out of the race.

The National Republican Congressional Committee also highlighted the race in November, putting both Republican hopefuls — former Maine Senate President Kevin Raye, of Perry, and former State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, of Oakland — on a list of 36 priority candidates, a distinction also coming with assistance.

However, it’s unknown what kind of Democrat or Republican will emerge: The candidates have highlighted sharp personal and policy differences early in the campaign and gotten support from divergent groups.

REPUBLICANS: RIGHT OR MIDDLE?

Poliquin is running hard to the right of Raye on the Republican side, with the latter candidate already pitching his perceived favorability in a general election.

Endorsements have started to trickle out, with Poliquin touting the support of FreedomWorks, a tea-party group tied to the Koch Brothers, and most Republican state representatives from the 2nd District. One of them, Rep. Richard Malaby, of Hancock, said he’d fully support either Raye or Poliquin after the primary; but he supports the former state treasurer now because Poliquin’s “probably a bit more conservative on fiscal issues.”

“I find that appealing,” Malaby said.

However, Raye’s campaign has gotten support from small-business people regionwide; the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, a national group boosting perceived pro-business candidates; and former U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, for whom Raye worked for 17 years, part of that during the time she held the 2nd District seat.

Dan Demeritt, a Republican political consultant who writes a weekly column for the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel and the Maine Sunday Telegram, said Raye is “more in line with the Republicans who have held that seat,” including Snowe and William Cohen, both known as moderates.

Raye has tried to ride that middle road, releasing internal poll information in November saying he’s more electable against a Democrat than Poliquin.

Even so, Demeritt said, Poliquin “has a strong point of view and is very spirited on the campaign trail.” His forte is appealing to conservatives on fiscal issues: As treasurer, he described his role as being an activist for taxpayers.

He used that pulpit to be Gov. Paul LePage’s fiscal “cheerleader-in-chief,” in Demeritt’s words. However, when Raye was Senate president, Demeritt, who once was LePage’s spokesman, noted that Raye had to shepherd many of the policies popular among conservatives through the Legislature.

On the campaign trail so far, Poliquin has assailed Raye’s long political career, while Raye’s camp has attacked Poliquin’s recent move to the district and his penchant for pouring wealth into a campaign.

On Twitter in February, Raye advisor Kathie Summers-Grice called Poliquin a “wealthy carpetbagger.” Poliquin has a large coastal home in Georgetown, in Maine’s 1st Congressional District, but he recently listed his residence as Oakland.

In a statement in January after Raye issued a news release attacking Poliquin for putting $100,000 into his campaign, Poliquin’s campaign manager Matthew Hutson issued a scathing statement saying Raye “cannot escape the ways of Washington where political attacks push out substance.”

BATTLE FOR LIBERAL CREDIBILITY

Cain has sold herself of late as the favorite in the race, releasing internal polling in January that showed she was favored over Jackson in the primary, which his campaign disputed.

Labor has lined up on his side so far, the best evidenced being the Maine AFL-CIO’s endorsement of him despite the fact that he and Cain both gained perfect scores on the union coalition’s most recent scorecard for legislators, issued last year.

Cain is less outspoken on labor issues, whereas Jackson has served as chairman of the Legislature’s labor committee and long advocated for higher wages for workers.

Still, the coalition’s early entrance into the race was notable: Matt Schlobohm, the Maine AFL-CIO’s executive director, said the group’s last high-profile primary endorsement was in 2002 for Michaud, before he won his first congressional term.

Schlobohm said members see both Cain and Jackson as strong leaders, but Jackson as “exceptional,” with a “personal story of knowing what it’s like to work for a living.”

“What it really came down to was that Troy has just been a tireless champion of working people and middle-class families,” Schlobohm said.

Cain’s base has been broad so far, however. She raised $300,000 to Jackson’s $140,000 through December’s end, with notable names on that donor list.

She has gotten money from Maine’s most notable Democratic donor, S. Donald Sussman. He’s the financier husband of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and he’s the majority share owner of MaineToday Media, publisher of the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel, the Portland Press Herald and other media outlets.

Cain also has support from out-of-state groups, including EMILY’s List, an organization that helps pro-abortion rights women get elected to office.

The two Democrats also have sparred recently about each other’s liberal credibility. In December, Cain sent a letter to potential supporters highlighting Jackson’s anti-gay marriage vote in 2009 and his anti-abortion stance, suggesting he would “roll back the years … to a more conservative time.”

Jackson’s campaign hit back in late January with an email blast from Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, citing a blogger who highlighted Cain’s support of a tax reform plan that would have flattened income taxes to raise sales taxes as one reason she often talks “like a Republican.”

Sandy Maisel, a Democratic political science professor at Colby College in Waterville, said Cain’s money lead and campaign gives her an edge against Jackson. He said he sees Jackson as a somewhat more conservative Democrat than Michaud, while Cain is more conventional.

With Michaud at the top of the ticket and popular in the district, Maisel said, both candidates would tie themselves to him should they emerge from the primary as the winner.

The real question, he said, is which candidate could appeal better to people who would vote for independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, in a three-way race with LePage and Michaud for governor.

“It seems like that would be Cain,” Maisel said.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652[email protected]Twitter: @mikeshepherdme@mikeshepherdme