I don’t know about you, but I’m not talking to any of my Maine Republican friends between now and Nov. 4 without first frisking them for a hidden tape recorder.

Twice in the last week, the guys to the right have tickled themselves half to death by releasing surreptitious audio recordings aimed at embarrassing Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Mike Michaud.

And twice, as these things often do, the stealth recordings have raised more questions about Republican tactics than Michaud’s suitability to be Maine’s next governor.

The first black op took place on a recent home visit by state Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, D-Bangor, with a constituent identified only as “Jim.” We don’t know Jim’s full name because the Republicans are bent on protecting his identity and Gratwick, who surely knows the guy’s identity, is apparently too much of a gentleman to fill in the blanks himself.

Anyway, Jim invited Gratwick into his home while Jim’s recorder – unknown to Gratwick – captured every word. At some point in the conversation (the Republicans only released a snippet), Gratwick is heard saying he’d vote for independent Eliot Cutler over Michaud in a head-to-head contest and that Michaud is “good, he’s strong, high average but not a brain guy.”

This was good news for Camp Cutler, which wasted no time clapping vigorously with one hand.

“The Cutler campaign does not condone the use of secret recordings, but this just confirms what we hear every day from Democratic and Republican legislators, former legislators and party activists who privately tell us Eliot is the best candidate and that they plan to vote for him,” Cutler spokeswoman Crystal Canney said in an email.

That, in turn, was music to the Republicans’ ears. The more they can build up Cutler at Michaud’s expense, the better chance Republican Gov. Paul LePage has of chipping away at Michaud’s current lead in the polls.

Now, Jim, whoever he is, did nothing illegal: Maine is one of 38 states that allow the recording of a private conversation provided that at least one of the parties knows it’s being recorded.

Still, Jim strikes me as a bit of a sleazeball. While Gratwick has good reason to be mortified that his words are now out there for everyone to hear, I’m left wondering: Does Jim only tape the occasional politician who comes to his door? Or is he up to something much creepier than that?

Care to weigh in on that, Jim?

The Republicans’ second gotcha moment comes courtesy of The Maine Wire, the right-throwing propaganda arm of the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

Steve Robinson, who runs the faux-news website, now admits that he eavesdropped on a conference call among several progressive-leaning organizations last week after getting hold of the sign-in code for the call. He also admits that he previously lied when he said a participant slipped him an audio recording of the 54-minute gabfest.

The point of the call was to devise a strategy for blunting a recent TV ad by the Republican Governors Association that accuses Michaud of wanting to make Maine “more attractive to illegal immigrants who can’t get benefits in other states.”

Not only is the ad inaccurate, it’s also sloppy – in addition to pronouncing Michaud’s name three different ways, it cites a June 27 Associated Press story in which Michaud isn’t even mentioned.

Still, the 30-second spot riled groups such as the Maine People’s Alliance and Maine Equal Justice Partners enough that they all got on the horn on Sept. 4 to discuss ways to correct the record on Maine immigrants. (One option was to “reach out” to yours truly to write about it, which they never did.)

First, a word about the call, which I listened to in its entirety: With all due respect to the half-dozen-plus participants, who spent almost an hour deciding to write a letter to the editor, I came away feeling very fortunate that I don’t spend a lot of time on conference calls. Edge-of-your-seat discourse this was not.

Yet through it all sat Robinson with his recorder, silently taking in every word like a kid hiding under the stairs at his parents’ cocktail party.

Was it legal? Maine Attorney General Janet Mills is looking into that at the request of those claiming Robinson invaded their privacy – as she also must deal with the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s claim that some of the non-profits were illegally engaging in political activity. (Pot, meet kettle.)

But legal or not, Robinson’s snooping speaks volumes about his own character and that of those directing him. He resorted to blatant dishonesty to advance his partisan objective – first by logging onto the call and not announcing his presence; second by lying about where he got the recording before the telephone number he used inevitably was traced back to him.

And now, rather than own up to his ethical lapse, Robinson told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday that those contemplating legal action against him should “bring it on.”

Indeed they should. Just as this newspaper, which runs a twice-monthly column by Robinson, should now consider whether he’s forfeited his perch on our op-ed page.

Some undoubtedly will claim that in this day of digital everything, people in the public eye should all expect that anything they say can, with the push of a button, be posted on the Internet for all to hear. To be sure, recent political campaigns have been rife with the work of paid trackers who stalk candidates with high-quality video cameras, as well as those less obvious operatives who attend public meetings just to catch it all on their smart phones.

But these latest hijinks by Maine Republicans and their allies feel different. Their political arena, alas, has become a playpen.

Jim, whoever he is, clearly set up Gratwick. I’ll bet a full airing of the tape would reveal that the senator was, as politicians are known to do from time to time, simply telling Jim what Gratwick thought he wanted to hear.

Robinson, meanwhile, outright lied. Beyond the legal implications surrounding his sneak attack, I suspect he’s too young to appreciate the damage he’s done to his reputation as a rising star in Maine politics.

Funny thing about that record button. Used improperly, it erases your credibility.

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