Maine’s 2nd Congressional District stretches from the western border with New Hampshire to the eastern tip of Washington County, encompassing everything north of Augusta.

It’s the largest district east of the Mississippi River, filled with rural voters who don’t always align themselves with a political party but with specific ideals instead.

Sen. John McCain’s announcement last week that he plans to make an aggressive advertising push in Maine has put the state, and especially its unique 2nd District, in the battleground category.

Depending on the outcome in November’s presidential election between McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, the move could either be seen as brilliant or desperate.

“The 2nd District is the kind of place where Republicans have done well,” said Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine. “It’s largely rural, almost exclusively white, has a high rate of gun ownership. Those are traits usually associated with Republican voters.”

Still, Brewer pointed out, Republican presidential candidates have yet to capture the 2nd District since Reagan. President George W. Bush came close in 2000 but still lost by 5,000 votes to Al Gore.

As McCain plans to roll out ads in Maine, the real question is whether he or his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, will make a visit to the Pine Tree State.

Christian Potholm, a professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick and a political consultant, said a personal stop could seal the deal, with one stipulation.

“I think it would be a complete bust if McCain comes, but if Palin comes and really does a whole day of campaigning, she could carry the 2nd District,” Potholm said.

Because Maine is one of only two states to split its electoral votes, Republicans could nab one vote from the 2nd District. However, Potholm said if McCain and Palin really do well in the 2nd, it could tip all four of Maine’s electoral votes McCain’s way.

“The polls in Maine have closed rather substantially since she was on the ticket,” he said. “Now, they would have to carry the 2nd District by a big margin for McCain to win the entire state, but it might be interesting.”

Since the primary season ended in June, most political experts would agree that Maine has been squarely in Obama’s corner. While he hasn’t built a lead of Illinois-like proportions, the Democrat has held a comfortable edge.

However, two recent polls show a tightening race. A SurveyUSA poll from Sept. 22-24 showed Obama with a 49-44 edge, and a Rasmussen poll on Sept. 17 had Obama on top 50-46.

Rep. Josh Tardy, R-Newport, McCain’s vice chair for Maine, said Palin is likable in Maine because she embodies many qualities shared by rural Mainers.

“I think a reform message is one that resonates here, particularly in the 2nd District,” he said.

Another selling point is the high percentage of unenrolled, or independent, voters in the 2nd District, a group that outnumbers both Republicans and Democrats.

“This is why I keep focusing on Palin,” Potholm said. “These independent voters tend to care less about policy and records, but want someone who thinks and acts like them. And of the four major candidates, she has the anti-establishment message.”

“She helped, but I don’t know that she helped as much as other people think,” countered Brewer. “I’d be interested to see a recent poll.”

Palin’s veneer has tarnished a little since her coming-out party in early September, thanks in part to unsteady interviews with CBS’ Katie Couric, although Palin did right the ship somewhat with her debate performance last Thursday.

Both Potholm and Brewer agreed that a well-placed trip to Maine by Palin could help not just the 2nd District or the state but the entire race.

“She would be very well-received here and it would be a great media opportunity for the campaign,” Brewer said, adding that he’s heard rumors of a Palin visit, although that has not been confirmed by the McCain campaign.

In the meantime, McCain will stick to advertising. Because Maine media markets are much cheaper than more traditional battleground states like Ohio or Pennsylvania, it won’t take much money to flood the state with ads.

McCain advisers also have said in recent days that they plan to step up attacks on Obama, so the ads are likely to be negative. Potholm said he would rather see commercials featuring Maine’s two popular Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins endorsing the McCain/Palin ticket.

Amid all the attention, Toby McGrath, Obama’s campaign director for Maine, said he’s not concerned about the ads or a potential Maine visit by either McCain or Palin.

“It wouldn’t change anything for us,” he said. “We’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing, which is focus on grassroots efforts.”

That may be McCain’s Achilles’ heel. Obama, whose comprehensive ground operation helped propel him to victory over Clinton in the Democratic primary, holds an advantage over McCain in that regard as well, Brewer said. The Obama camp has 13 field offices in Maine from York County to Fort Kent, compared to only five for McCain.

Still, it’s likely none of this would matter if Maine didn’t split its electoral votes. Nebraska is the only other state that splits votes, but political analysts wondered if that could change.

“It seems that the Maine/Nebraska model would allow individual votes to count more. I don’t know why more haven’t done it,” Brewer said. “I guess it’s easier to keep the status quo.”

Potholm admitted he didn’t know the history of why Maine and Nebraska split votes but agreed with Brewer.

“I think it makes more sense. It would take power away from cities,” Potholm said. “Instead of Republicans immediately writing off New York State or Democrats always writing off Texas, you might see more genuine competition. Every state would be a battleground.”