When Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine announced last winter that she had decided to retire, Democrats looked forward to a windfall. They might still get it — by losing rather than winning.

Snowe, one of the Senate’s last remaining moderates, was almost sure to win a fourth term. For a while, it looked as if half of Maine would run. Now the race is down to three major candidates: the Democrat, the Republican and the independent.

State Sen. Cynthia Dill is a liberal Democrat who stands with President Barack Obama on just about everything. Yet many Democrats are supporting the independent, former governor Angus King. Dill, in turn, might have to rely on Republicans, who are bolstering her as a way of siphoning off votes from King.

Meanwhile, the Republican, Secretary of State Charles Summers, must stand by and watch as his party spends as much time tearing down King’s campaign as it does building his own.

Confused yet? It’s an intricate dance bound to smash someone’s toes. Right now those toes belong to Dill, who can’t get Democrats to take her to the prom for fear that a vote for her comes straight from King, which could in turn nudge Summers to a victory.

Dill is a victim of the Democrats’ tendency to fight the last war: They’re making up for failing to play a tricky race for governor. In 2010, Republican Paul LePage slipped into office when independents and Democrats split the vote.

For a while, Democrats were laying low. They assumed that King, who was governor from 1995 to 2003 and won his second term with almost 59 percent of the vote, had such a big lead that Summers would not be a threat and that a victorious King would caucus with them.

That was before $2 million in attack ads by Republicans and Republican-leaning groups like the Chamber of Commerce took their toll on King’s campaign.

King, who hosted a TV show on Maine’s Public Broadcasting System for 18 years, is now a college lecturer, lawyer and co- founder of an energy company.

This makes him, according to ads, a wealthy crony capitalist who put up eyesore windmills in people’s backyards and lost touch with Maine voters. What’s more, he was profligate in his time in the governor’s office (he put an Apple computer on every seventh- and eighth-grader’s lap).

King’s formerly double-digit lead is down in one Republican poll to single digits, although other polls show his lead still in double digits.

To buck himself up, King brought in “Law and Order” star Sam Waterston to cut an ad for him. Last week, Americans Elect, the nonpartisan group formed to draft a candidate to run for president, announced it would spend more than $1 million ($500,000 from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP) on TV ads supporting King.

King could win and break Democrats’ hearts, of course. He hasn’t said who he will caucus with, although his views are certainly in line with Obama’s. With his Toyota Prius, shaggy demeanor and earth-tone fashion, he acts like a liberal and he supports Obama’s health-care reform, abortion rights and increasing taxes as part of any deal to reduce the deficit.

He voted for Obama in 2008 and says he will again. But in 2000, he voted for George W. Bush. He’s against increasing the minimum wage and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

King isn’t dumb enough to pledge his troth to either party — though he was dumb enough to suggest he might break both their hearts to remain uncommitted, attracting widespread criticism for the first time.

Remaining uncommitted would mean no committee assignments, and since most of the Senate’s work (when it works at all) takes place in committee, King would have little to do other than say yea or nay to legislation crafted by others.

Snowe is one of the Senate’s greats — dignified, unpretentious and unfailingly polite, whether listening to her colleagues drone on or to the same question from a reporter for the 100th time. She never raises her voice or seeks attention. She’ll pose for a photo on the Capitol steps even when the visitors aren’t from her home state.

More than most, she knows life can be brutishly short: She lost both parents by the age of 10, her first husband when she was 26, and her stepson when he was 20.

As her 65th birthday approached last winter, she wondered if another six years in a paralyzed chamber would be worth it. With a 70 percent approval rating, she would have won in a walk, but she didn’t see how she could still make a difference.

Whoever replaces her will have big L.L. Bean boots to fill.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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