WASHINGTON -- Moderate Republicans may be a vanishing breed elsewhere, but Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are thriving.
In a narrowly divided Senate, the two women who are willing to buck their conservative GOP colleagues enjoy outsized influence. Democrats see the pair as potential swing votes as they press forward with their health reform plan. Their support could provide a veneer of bipartisanship.
As usual, Snowe and Collins are seeking middle ground in the health care fight, working with other centrists.
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Snowe is the only Senate Republican to vote for Democratic health care legislation.
Collins wants to curb health care costs. She was front and center helping Democrats pass President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan, but only after working to scale back costs.
In a national GOP ruled by Southern and Western conservatives, Snowe and Collins stand out. Along with retiring New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, they are the only New England Republicans left in Congress.
The ranks of Northeast Republicans have thinned since the 1960s when social conservatives overtook the party's more moderate Eastern establishment, so-called Rockefeller Republicans.
The point was driven home recently in upstate New York where a moderate GOP nominee dropped out of a special House race after prominent conservatives backed her Conservative Party rival. It underscored the bitter GOP fight _ often pitting the party's energized conservative base against its leaders _ over whether there's room for moderates in the party.
Some conservatives mock Snowe and Collins as "RINOS" _ Republicans in Name Only.
"We want Olympia Snowe in the big tent, but she can't say she's a Republican and then vote against the Republican position much of the time," Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a potential presidential candidate, said in a recent MSNBC interview. He later backtracked, saying Snowe was welcome in the party.
Yet independence is what makes Snowe and Collins popular back home, where pragmatism tends to trump partisanship.
"Pragmatic best describes the typical Maine voter," said University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer. "They may identify with a party, but they're not going to go to the mat for their party."
Snowe swept to a third term in 2006 with 74 percent of the vote.
"There's very little chance of her being challenged in a meaningful way," said Brewer. "She's untouchable."
During a tough year for Republicans nationwide, Collins glided to re-election in 2008 in a state Obama won handily. She trounced a well-known and well-funded challenger, former Democratic congressman Tom Allen.
Maine has voted Democratic in the last five presidential campaigns, but independents hold sway in the large, sparsely populated state known for its rocky coastline, lobsters and rugged woods.
"Life can be hard in Maine," Collins said. "Our winters are hard. Earning a living can be hard. People tend to be very practical, not as ideological."
The late Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, one of the state's most beloved politicians, often split with her party. Her famed "Declaration of Conscience" speech in 1950 denounced red-baiting Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
As a congressman, Maine Republican William Cohen broke ranks and voted to impeach former President Richard Nixon. Cohen later became former President Bill Clinton's defense secretary.
Snowe and Collins are fiscally conservative, yet more socially moderate. They part with the GOP on issues like abortion rights and the environment.
Their defections cripple minority Republicans seeking to block Democratic legislation. But conservative Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said the GOP needs to embrace moderates like Snowe and Collins if it hopes to reclaim control of Congress.
"If it helps you have a majority, it's really good for the Republican Party," Isakson said.
Collins, 56, is seen as slightly more conservative than Snowe. She grew up in the small northern Maine town of Caribou where her family has run a lumber business since 1844. She's made small business concerns a priority.
"I supported more tax reductions than she has traditionally," said Collins, referring to Snowe.
Lifelong Republican Snowe, 62, likes to say her core beliefs haven't changed, but her party has.
"Our party can ill afford to be using litmus tests," said Snowe, citing the success of former President Ronald Reagan, who embraced an expansive "big tent" view of the GOP.
The daughter of Greek immigrants, Snowe lost her mother to cancer when she was 8. Her father died a year later from heart disease. She was widowed at 26 when her first husband died in a car crash.
They may be close on the political spectrum, but Snowe and Collins are not known as close friends. They work together on Maine-related issues, and recently they've both been working with centrist senators expected to play a key role on health care reform.
"I think that's where we can play a role," said Snowe.
Associated Press writers Clarke Canfield in Portland, Maine, and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.
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