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Senate Finance Committee member Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 22, 2009. (Susan Walsh/Susan Walsh/CP)
Senate Finance Committee member Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 22, 2009. (Susan Walsh/Susan Walsh/CP)

Olympia Snowe travels her own road on health care Add to ...

For most Republicans in Washington, breaking ranks with the party leadership in this bitterly partisan climate would be tantamount to political suicide.

Where Senator Olympia Snowe comes from, though, it is a sign of a good politician.

A three-term senator with a low profile, Ms. Snowe is now one of the most controversial figures in Washington, having been instantly spotlighted for stepping out this week as the lone Republican to side with a panel of 13 Democrats during a critical Senate finance committee vote on health-care reform legislation.

Nationally, the reputation of the long-time Republican has taken a pounding, earning her labels such as "maverick" and "rogue." But at home in Maine, her centrism has been lauded. There, she is a political warrior - a moderate holdout and member of a dying political breed.

"She is impervious to an attack from the left or the right. She's a heroine," said Christian Potholm, an academic at Maine's Bowdoin College and a long-time political consultant. "Maine voters want a certain kind of Republican. They wouldn't like her if she did something just to please the right wing or the Republican Party," he said, adding: "People in Maine, regardless of political affiliation, they want our problems solved."

Ms. Snowe, who was born in Maine 62 years ago and grew up in the state's frontier atmosphere, has been chipping away at those problems in various political capacities for about 36 years. In 1994, she made her first run for the U.S. Senate and won. Since then, her approval ratings have consistently hovered around 65 or 70 per cent.

While her political career has gone relatively smoothly, her personal life has been peppered with ups and downs. Her mother died of cancer when she was 8 and, one year later, a heart attack killed her father, leaving her orphaned. Later, she lost both her first husband and then a stepson to an accident and health breakdown, respectively.

Mr. Potholm, who has known Ms. Snowe since she entered politics, said the events of her personal life have steeled her in ways that will only help her weather the criticism and scrutiny she'll undergo at this juncture of her career.

"She's had plenty of tragedy and she's not about to be scared off … by a bunch of bloggers that want to put her out of the party," Mr. Potholm said. "She's paid the price, she's going to take crap no matter what she does. At the end of the day she'll do what she thinks is best."

Her decision is unlikely to be swayed by party politics. In an opinion piece published last April in The New York Times, Ms. Snowe wrote that "being a Republican moderate sometimes feels like being a cast member of Survivor - you are presented with multiple challenges, and you often get the distinct feeling that you're no longer welcome in the tribe."

Still, she hasn't shied away from taking tough stands. She was one of only three Republican senators to support President Barack Obama's economic-stimulus plan; during the George W. Bush era, she sided against him when she supported a bill to provide health care to millions of uninsured children.

"The Bush administration was a hard situation for her. She said, 'I had to go and put on armour every day,'" Mr. Potholm recounted. "People in the White House were always trying to push her to the right. She just wouldn't do it."

While national party figures have assailed her as an ideological outlier, one pollster said he was shocked to learn that respondents to a recent survey of academics and Washington insiders consistently rank her as one of the most respected and influential senators on Capitol Hill.

"A lot of senators wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and see the future U.S. president. Not Olympia," said Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College in Maine. "She gets up and looks in the mirror and sees somebody who's going to figure out how to solve tough problems. She's not a showboat. She's a workhorse," he said.

For weeks Ms. Snowe has been telegraphed as a pivotal figure in the future of health-care reform, someone whose vote could help bridge minority moderate Republicans who can be brought onside while also sheltering right-leaning Democrats who have been skittish about supporting the bill.

Evidence of her potential to attract bipartisan support came in the form of a cautiously worded statement Wednesday from her Maine Republican colleague, Senator Susan Collins, who signalled that she may also be open to voting for health-care reform if the legislation improves as it moves towards the Senate floor.

Whether the two moderates have any chance of enticing more Republican colleagues to follow in their footsteps is an open question.

"I don't think there are many Republicans in the Senate who are willing to do that," Mr. Maisel said, adding a caveat: "I think we're in an age of increased partisanship.… There is evidence that the Republicans in the legislature are more conservative than Republicans nationally."

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