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Veteran election handicapper Stuart Rothenberg says, “Kerrey deserves to be taken seriously. But skepticism is warranted. After all, he’s been out of the state for years, has been mentioned as a potential candidate in New York and has already flip-flopped about his interest in the Senate race.”

Nebraska, if anything, is even more conservative than it was when Mr. Kerrey held his Senate seat. President Obama won less than 42 percent of the vote there in 2008, and Mr. Kerrey says he has no intention of living in his home state. If he wins, he probably will reside in Washington. Polls already show him down by double digits.

“Times have changed, and that makes Kerrey an even longer shot in Nebraska,” Mr. Rothenberg said in a recent analysis. He scores the race “Republican Favored.”

Maine is another case entirely. While its two senators are Republican, as is its governor, both House members are Democrats, and Mr. Obama carried the state by nearly 58 percent of the vote.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, had led in the polls for the Democratic Senate nomination, but after Mr. King’s entry, she reluctantly withdrew her candidacy.

A recent Public Policy Polling voter survey showed Mr. King with a narrow lead in a three-way race.

Mr. King, a popular former two-term governor, seemed to straddle both parties through much of his career, but he has made it clear in the past decade that in his heart and soul he was always a Democrat. He supported Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry for president in 2004 and Mr. Obama in 2008.

Still, this latest smoke-filled-room deal showed that Mr. Reid isn’t playing by the usual rules in this year’s Senate races and will do just about anything to hold on to his powerful post. Republicans are crying “dirty tricks.”

“This is just the latest backroom deal we’ve seen from national Democrats, and it adds to the cynicism that voters in Maine and around the country rightfully feel toward those running Washington these days,” said Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Right now, the question for Mr. Kerrey and Mr. King is simply this: Are you the candidate of the people of your state or the candidate of the party bosses in Washington?

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.