Wednesday September 19, 2012 | 04:54 PM

Two polls released Wednesday show that independent Angus King's once commanding lead in the U.S. Senate race is withering. One survey by Public Policy Polling puts King's lead in single digits, while another by the Maine Peoples Resource Center has King up 15 points.

The big difference between the two polls is in the support for Republican Charlie Summers. MPRC has Summers at 35 percent, PPP has him at 28.

The variance could be because PPP didn't ask respondents about the three independents in the race, Andrew Ian Dodge, Danny Dalton and Steve Woods.

Regardless, Democratic sources say the PPP results track closely with internal polling recently conducted here that show King is slipping.

Which brings us to the question of the day: Will national Democrats help King?

The party has already put itself in a difficult position by essentially deferring to King and keeping its best known candidates out of the race. They gambled that King would win and that he will vote with the party on most issues.

Given the high stakes of the Maine race -- potentially control of the U.S. Senate -- it may seem that Democrats would have little choice but to intervene on King's behalf. Doing so could be tricky and risk further alienating Democrats loyal to the party nominee, Cynthia Dill.

Heavy-handed Democratic interference could also erode King's support among Republicans.

Nonetheless, Wednesday's polls indicate that the outside groups attempting to influence the race may be having an impact. Those groups have spent over $1.5 million attacking King, promoting Dill or lumping the two candidates together.

The success of the ads could be an incentive for Democrats to start attacking Summers, whose policy positions on wealth distribution, tax policy and the environment closely mirror those of other Republican congressional candidates currently weathering Democratic criticism.

Summers has the benefit of organizational support from national Republicans and the traditional backing that comes from belonging to one of the two major political parties. In addition to the ads by outside groups, Summers has been able to let the Maine Republican Party handle broadcasting opposition research that questions King's record and business dealings.

King, meanwhile, has vowed not to run a "negative campaign." He doesn't have the backing of a proxy organization. His victory is dependent on the performance of his campaign -- a campaign that critics have said has been too passive and overly reliant on the former governor's popularity and charisma.

Such realities may convince Democrats to intervene. Or maybe not.

Some believe that Summers and Dill have reached their ceiling of support and that King had nowhere to go but down. The latest polls show the real race, they say.

However, not everyone agrees with that assessment. King has a long record. His diminished lead will be an incentive for Republican groups to continue dumping money into the race.

So what does King do?

PPP, in its analysis of the race, offered a solution.

"It's reaching the point where King may need to more explicitly say he's going to organize as Democrat if he wants to win this race,"  PPP's Dean Debnam wrote, adding that King is winning only 13 percent of the Republican vote, but losing 26 percent of the Democratic vote to Dill.

Debnam's advice was immediately echoed by the Huffington Post.

However, by announcing that he'll caucus with Democrats, King could undercut his primary campaign message, his independence.

Others have suggested that King gravitate toward policy positions that Democrats support (Is it a coincidence that the only issue position in the MPRC poll was about taxing the wealthy? MPRC, remember, is linked to the Maine Peoples Alliance, a progressive advocacy group.).

Whatever Democrats and King decide to do, they'll have to do it fast. As the 2010 governor's race showed, party affiliated voters often vote early.

Early voting for overseas residents begins Friday, Oct. 5 for everyone else.

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Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.

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