WATERBURY, CONN., OCT. 30 -- Not since the days of Watergate has there been a better time to be Lowell P. Weicker Jr.

The former Republican senator, who has made a political career out of straying wildly from the fold, finds himself running for governor as an independent in a year when angry voters seem more interested in casting stones than ballots.

Positioned squarely between his two opponents, liberal Democrat Rep. Bruce A. Morrison and conservative Republican Rep. John G. Rowland, Weicker could become the first independent to win a gubernatorial contest since insurance executive James B. Longley was elected governor of Maine in 1974.

"People here are not foolish," Weicker said as he cruised the state in his campaign van. "They know there isn't a Republican answer or a Democratic answer, and they are just damned tired of partisan politics. They want to deal with the realities of life."

In Connecticut, those realities are getting grimmer every day: State officials have projected a $1.5 billion budget deficit for the next 18 months, housing starts have fallen by more than a third in the past year, and the state's largest insurance companies are about to lay off thousands of workers.

In the past decade more then 50,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared, and no candidate has done much more than shake his head at the prospect of more hard times to come when the full impact of defense cuts is felt in a state that benefited dramatically from the Reagan era buildup.

Many here wonder whether Weicker, the professional maverick who in three terms as a Republican senator was best known for calling on President Richard M. Nixon to resign because of the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s and who often clashed with the conservative leadership of his party, could govern such a troubled state.

As next Tuesday's Election Day nears and Weicker continues to hold a solid but diminishing lead in major polls, his opponents are focusing increasingly on the question of whether Weicker, for 30 years a blunt, contentious and independent loner, is capable of more than winning an election. They point out that while senators can often survive by throwing rhetorical firebombs, governors need to lead, particularly in the troubled economic times all agree lie ahead.

"He couldn't even get a bill introduced without asking a Democrat or Republican to do it for him," said Rowland. "Here is a guy who never got along with anyone in Washington and he certainly was never welcome in his own party and he expects the legislature to give him a helping hand."

None of this appears to bother Weicker, who is far better known than his opponents and who has always enjoyed portraying himself as the outsider.

"I do love to scrap," Weicker said. "People need a target and I'm a big one. But how many others have taken on the tough issues -- freedom of religion, court stripping, abortion -- that I have? I don't doubt myself and I don't mind that others know it."

Weicker has proposed a reduction in Connecticut's corporate taxes, which are the highest in the nation and have been blamed for forcing companies to flee the state. But his campaign largely has been thin on specifics, relying on the candidate's strong personality and theatrical flair that makes few people neutral about his him.

"You all know me," Weicker replied to a question about support of subsidized housing at a candidate's forum here over the weekend. "If I'm on the street and I see something going on I dive into the pile. I don't like to lay back."

While Weicker plays up the role of independent outsider, the Democrats here fall over themselves to remind people that, despite his third-party candidacy, the 60-year-old Greenwich millionaire has never left the GOP.

"The guy is a Republican and he always has been," said Morrison, who has represented New Haven in the House since 1983 and appears to have the most to fear from Weicker's candidacy. "He has lived off the political system for a lifetime, always as a Republican. And now he comes around and says he is the lone virtuous outsider. It's a little ridiculous really."

Democrats who do not support Morrison are far more likely to switch to Weicker than to Rowland, so he has been forced to confront the idea of Weicker as a leader far more than he would have preferred. In addition, Morrison -- running third in most polls -- has had to remain in Washington during much of the campaign, shepherding his immigration bill, which he described as his "greatest political achievement," through the House.

"Bruce had to overcome a lot of problems in this race," said John Deroni, the state Democratic chairman. "There is an anti-incumbent feeling about the land. He is seen as heir to Gov. {William} O'Neill {D} by many even though he challenged him to begin with. It is a hard year to get ideas across."

Morrision has pledged to stimulate the economy with short-term business loans that have been heavily restricted by federal bank regulators. Rowland has said deep cuts will be necessary in nearly all aspects of state spending, including health benefits for state workers.

"I think we have all been sucked into the belief that tax increases or easy-money schemes will somehow relieve deficits," Rowland said. "It never has and I don't see how it's going to now."