A little over a month ago, I sat waiting at a stoplight in Scarborough when I noticed a woman in garden gloves planting a solitary election sign amid a sea of other political placards.

Nearby, a car idled with a young woman behind the wheel. The sign planter finished her one-and-done installation, hurried to the car, and off they went to Lord knows where — her bold-lettered plea all but lost among those urging votes for Charlie Summers, Angus King, and so on down the ballot …

It was a “Dill for Senate” sign. And four weeks before Maine’s U.S. Senate election, while the independent King and Republican Summers left it to countless volunteers to handle such mundane pieces of on-the-ground campaigning, this Democratic foot soldier was none other than Cynthia Dill herself.

It was hard not to feel sorry for her — the top-of-the-ticket candidate whose lack of party support left her looking more like a contestant for town council than a contender for the U.S. Senate.

But it also captured, in painfully sharp relief, the questions looming over Maine’s Democratic Party on Tuesday as Dill limped home to a predictably distant third-place finish in one of the country’s most closely watched Senate races:

When, if ever, are Maine’s Democrats going to get back in the game?

And as Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Gov. Paul LePage gear up for re-election bids two short years from now, who among the Democrats is truly ready, willing and able to take the field?

“I don’t think we’ll have a shortage of people interested in running. That’s not the problem,” party Chairman Ben Grant observed in a recent interview. “The problem is finding someone who’s viable.”

Which, by any measure, Cynthia Dill was not.

Still, Dill’s dilemma — being vaulted via a frenetic primary into a prime-time race for which she was woefully underfunded and wholly unprepared — was only the tip of the problem.

Far more significant is the new calculus of Maine politics: the emergence of the “Maine independent” not just as the biggest bloc (37 percent) in the state’s electorate, but also as the breeding ground for deep-pocketed, nonpartisan candidates who draw from the left far more than they do from the right.

Eliot Cutler did it in 2010, trouncing Democrat Libby Mitchell in the race for governor but failing to overcome the Republican base that supported (and continues to support) LePage.

King did it Tuesday, bleeding skittish Democratic voters away from Dill and capturing more than enough of Maine’s 337,535 unenrolled voters to win going away from Republican Charlie Summers.

And now, as all eyes turn to the 2014 governor’s race, Cutler is poised to do it again. Unless, that is, the Democrats can find someone, anyone, to recharge their moribund base and give Maine’s Great Unenrolled Middle reason to migrate leftward.

Make no mistake about it — today, the clock starts ticking toward Nov. 4, 2014. And nowhere in sight are the Democrats’ presumptive challengers to LePage’s all-but-certain bid for a second term as governor and Collins’ march to a fourth term in the Senate.

The obvious choices would be the two Democrats who already are closest to the top — newly re-elected U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud.

But Pingree and Michaud had chances to aim higher this year, after Sen. Olympia Snowe unexpectedly called it quits. And both chose to hang onto their seats in Congress rather than risk it all for an anything-but-guaranteed battle with the ever-popular King.

So if King gave them the jitters in a three-way race, why won’t Collins in a head-to-head showdown?

And with Republican LePage (37.6 percent in 2010) and independent Cutler (35.9 percent in 2010) already setting their sights on the next gubernatorial race, why would Pingree or Michaud come down off Capitol Hill for a straight-uphill run at the Blaine House?

“I’m focused on representing Maine people in the House and we’ve got some really significant issues to deal with before the end of the year,” Pingree noted in an email this week. “I’m happy with my job and I’m not spending much time thinking about running for a different office.”

Echoed Michaud: “As we move forward from this election, Washington is going to need to step back from its partisanship and work together to tackle the serious issues facing our country. This has to be the priority and first order of business.”

In other words, check back later.

Or, should Pingree and Michaud decide once again to stay put, start scanning the Democrats’ anything-but-deep bench for candidates who can perform convincingly on a statewide stage: Former Attorney General Janet Mills? Outgoing House Minority Leader Emily Cain? Former House Speaker Glenn Cummings? Former Speaker Hannah Pingree?

Or how about Adam Cote, the outside-the-box Iraq veteran from Sanford who finished a surprisingly strong second to Chellie Pingree in the 1st District congressional primary in 2008?

Democratic Chairman Grant said it’s not so much about name recognition at this point as it is “a process of imagination.”

“What is their story?” Grant asked rhetorically. “What is their professional background? Where are they from? What are their ties to Maine? How can we tell their story?”

Good questions all. But even as they wait to see if they’ve wrested at least the Maine House back from the Republicans, Maine’s Democrats face a huge messaging challenge: Persuade a skeptical statewide electorate that they, not the Republicans and not the center-left independents, are worthy of a serious look two years down the road.

Or, as the lofty preamble to the 2012 Maine Democratic Party platform puts it: “Economic opportunity and security, universal access to quality education and health care, good government, fair taxes, safety and national security, human rights, environmental protection, and international cooperation are the policies and principles for which we have long fought and will continue to fight.”

Maine’s Democrats have 727 days, and counting, to condense all of that down to a name on a sign.

Make that lots of signs.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]