Heads up, Maine Democrats. There’s a full-fledged mugging in progress.

It comes to us courtesy of Attorney General Janet Mills, who in recent days has gone to great lengths to portray Adam Cote – her strongest opponent in Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary – as a Republican in donkey’s clothing.

After registering as a Republican to vote for John McCain in 2000, Adam Cote says he was more concerned with preparing to go to war in Iraq than with changing back his political affiliation. He re-enrolled as a Democrat in 2006.

And it’s likely to be amplified over the next few days by EMILY’s List, the national promoter of pro-choice Democratic women running for elective office, to the tune of $192,500 in spending on “opposition” to Cote’s candidacy.

That’s a lot of money. Then again, cheap shots of this magnitude don’t come cheaply.

At issue is Mills’ claim, as stated in a TV ad already flooding Maine’s airwaves, that Cote is wrongly attacking Mills “because for years Cote was a registered Republican.”

First, Cote’s so-called “false attacks” are actually true: During her time as a legislator, Mills received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association not once, not twice, but four times.

And, as Cote also has charged, Mills took heat from an array of environmental groups for engaging in lengthy court battles with Maine’s Indian tribes over water issues.

Mills could have just pointed out that she’s currently rated “F” by the NRA – and that she cares deeply about Maine’s water and its Indians – and left it at that.

But now, in what looks a lot like an act of desperation, she adds that Cote’s criticisms stem from his years as a … wait for it … REPUBLICAN!

We should pause here and note that, even as Maine’s electorate yearns for a less polarized political climate, Mills still considers “Republican” the worst thing she can call her closest opponent.

But here’s the real problem: Unlike Mills’ own baggage, her attack on Cote could not ring hollower.

Cote did in fact register as a Republican just before the 2000 presidential primary. He did it so he could vote for John McCain, whom he liked, over George W. Bush, whom he didn’t.

Why didn’t he unenroll as a Republican after the primary? Good question.

Maybe it was because he was busy training for his next deployment with the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion to Mosul, Iraq, in early 2004.

I still remember the evening that then-Lt. Cote, a platoon leader, knocked on my barracks door while I was embedded that spring with the 133rd.

He explained how the battalion had adopted a nearby village of Iraqi refugees, how the soldiers were working hard to upgrade the deplorable living conditions there, how he had personally sent an email to his family and friends back home in Maine seeking donations to the cause.

“Many of you have asked if there was anything you could do to help improve the situation over here for the Iraqis,” Cote wrote. “Well, the time has come.”

Mainers, at the young lieutenant’s urging, did themselves proud. All told, more than 2,000 packages brimming with clothing, cookware, and toys and sporting goods for the 1,000-plus kids in the village, all made their way from Maine to Mosul, where the soldiers ferried the bounty to the awestruck villagers.

Eight months later, I was back in Mosul when a suicide bomber self-detonated in the mess hall at Forward Operating Base Marez four days before Christmas, killing 22 and injuring scores of others.

I watched a young soldier die. I witnessed the able-bodied triaging and treating their comrades while incoming medical helicopters shrouded them in blinding dust. And I can still see Cote, calm and laser-focused, supervising and stepping in whenever a litter crew or one of the walking wounded needed a helping hand.

I remember marveling at his quiet leadership. I don’t remember wondering what political party he belonged to.

So, why didn’t Cote change his enrollment status upon coming home in early 2005? Again, good question.

Maybe it’s because, upon returning to Maine, he had to get acquainted with the 5-month-old daughter he hadn’t yet met – Cote’s wife, Paulina, informed him she was pregnant only a day or two before he shipped out.

Or maybe it’s because, like many a returning vet, he and his wife had to work hard to reset their marriage.

Or maybe it was because he needed shoulder surgery. Early in the deployment, Cote tore his rotator cuff, labrum and biceps while putting on his body armor – he took painkillers for months rather than leave his platoon without its leader.

Finally, sometime around 2006, Cote realized he was still a Republican and changed back to a Democrat.

Why? Because he wanted to help breathe new life into the flagging Maine Young Democrats, much like he’d joined the Colby Democrats and volunteered for Joe Brennan’s Senate campaign during his college days.

The point here is that Cote, while enrolled as a Republican longer than he planned, was never an active party member. Unless you count, as Mills is quick to point out, the $5 he once gave to a fellow attorney at Pierce Atwood who went office-to-office seeking clean-election donations for Republican Chandler Woodcock.

Then there’s the first online ad funded by the political action committee EMILY’s List, which launched late Thursday afternoon. It charges that Cote is beholden to the dark side because his 2008 congressional primary campaign received a contribution from the nonpartisan BIPAC – supported by, among many other businesses, Halliburton and ExxonMobil.

“Cote should stop his attacks and own up to his Republican past,” says the ad’s narrator, who conveniently fails to mention that he was actually back in the Democratic fold when he received the BIPAC donation.

Contacted Thursday, Mills campaign manager Michael Ambler called Cote’s enrollment as a Republican, the contribution to Woodcock and the BIPAC contribution a “constellation” that can be explained away piece by piece.

But when viewed together, he said, “I think it’s fair to say this is someone who’s consistently misrepresented himself to try and win elections.”

So here we sit, four days before the primary election, being asked to believe that Adam Cote is some kind of fraud, that he’s actually “one of them,” that he needs to be kicked out of the oh-so-inclusive Democratic tent before he becomes governor and exposes his true identity.

If you know Adam Cote like I do, you won’t buy it.

And if you don’t know him, there’s still time to take a hard look. His 2000 enrollment as a Republican On Paper Only has been acknowledged on his campaign website for more than a year.

“The attacks that don’t have any legitimacy are the ones that come in at the very end because it makes it very difficult to respond, to put it in context, or to give it come clarity for people to make a real decision,” Cote told me over the telephone Thursday. “And that’s what bothers me about it.”

As well it should.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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