Two Maine Democrats are contemplating running for U.S. Senate next year against Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe.

Early in the 2012 election cycle, many political analysts have paid more attention to the potential primary challenge to Snowe from the conservative, tea party-affiliated wing of her own party.

But the interest being shown by state Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland and former Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap of Old Town demonstrates that Democrats are assembling a strong general election challenge, said Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party.

Grant acknowledged that Snowe, a three-term senator who’s considered a moderate Republican, continues to appeal to many Maine voters across the political spectrum. But that doesn’t mean Democrats can’t make headway against Snowe on specific issues such as Medicare, he said, and now that the state legislative session is over, Democrats are beginning to focus on next year’s race.

Snowe has “a lot of personal popularity,” Grant said. “That has hampered people’s game plans. But you have to be tough on the issues where there are stark differences. If you take people on head-on, anyone can be beaten.”

Dunlap said Thursday that he is “seriously considering” running for Snowe’s seat.

Dunlap, 46, who has been a state lawmaker as well as secretary of state, now is executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

He announced earlier this year he will step down from that post in September. He said in an interview Thursday that he began thinking about running only after he had decided to leave the alliance.

Dunlap said he will be committed to his work for the alliance until the end of his tenure, “but people have asked me about (the run for Senate). I’m thinking about it and I am taking it seriously.”

Hinck, a three-term state legislator, said in an interview Thursday that he does not yet have a time frame for deciding whether to run. He said he has not begun raising money for a Senate race.

Snowe raised more than $877,000 during this year’s first quarter and had more than $2 million on hand as of March 31. Another fundraising quarter ended Thursday, with campaign finance reports due July 15.

Hinck, 57, said he is “very seriously” considering a Senate campaign. “I wouldn’t say that if I hadn’t put some real thought into it or real work into it.”

Hinck, an environmental and consumer litigation attorney whose background includes a decade working for Greenpeace, said “in many ways Sen. Snowe has been a fine Maine senator. Her record on the environment is pretty good.”

But the Republican Party “keeps pulling her away from what appears to be her best instincts,” Hinck said. “What I think it tends to do is prevent her from being the leader that she might even want to be (and) I don’t think we can look to Sen. Snowe to drive the kind of progress that we need” on issues such as the environment, energy, campaign finance reform and the national deficit and debt.

While Hinck and Dunlap are the only Democrats who Grant knows are seriously considering the Senate race, “I anticipate at this point that we will have a primary” next year.

He said, “A primary would be great for the party right now. Primaries, when done right, help promote interest and enthusiasm for the party and help promote our ideas.”

For the Republican primary, one of Snowe’s declared challengers is Scott D’Amboise, 47, of Lisbon Falls.

D’Amboise, who ran against Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud in 2006, is a health care technician who owns a commercial cleaning business. Snowe’s other announced tea party-aligned challenger is Andrew Ian Dodge of Harpswell, 43, a freelance writer.

Sharon Miller, Snowe’s campaign spokeswoman, said Snowe, 64, has not changed her positions as a lawmaker in the face of a challenge from within her own party. Miller said Snowe has always had a conservative fiscal record.

Asked if Snowe has become less independent or has been pulled to the right by her party, Miller said, “I don’t see that. That will be for the people of Maine to decide.”

Maine Today Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler contributed to this report.

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: