Scott McInnis campaign can still be saved -- but it won't be easy, says Republican consultant

Scott McInnis's plagiarism problems sent his campaign into a tailspin -- and with competitor Dan Maes mired in troubles of his own, Colorado Republicans like Senator Greg Brophy are scrambling for a fix.

Still, Republican consultant Katy Atkinson believes McInnis isn't necessarily doomed -- although he's got a big mountain to climb.

One plus for McInnis, in Atkinson's view, is the overall strength of the Republican Party as we approach the November election.

"In 2006 and 2008, being a Republican was the biggest negative you could have," she says. "In 2010, it looks like being a Democrat is the biggest negative you can have -- which makes it a great year for Republicans generally."

With that in mind, "I'm not willing to say this race is all over at this point by any stretch of the imagination. If you look at the polling -- and Survey USA is probably not the best polling entity out there, but it's what the Post used -- it showed that [Mayor John] Hickenlooper has snuck up a point or two ahead of McInnis in the midst of all this stuff. But the fact that Hickenlooper didn't get a huge bounce out of it means voters aren't willing to sign off on him yet. So I think the door's still open for a Republican, if they can get the message and the conversation and the focus back on campaign issues -- back on jobs, the economy, education, and all those things that people really care about. That's essential."

That'll be difficult for McInnis, for reasons illustrated by his recent interview with Channel 7's John Feruggia, in which he looked evasive and insincere as he tried to dodge questions about the $300,000 payday he received for his "Musings on Water." The borrowings from Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs' writings that turned up in those pieces were initially blamed on Rolly Fischer, an elderly researcher who made the worst scapegoat imaginable.

Besides, McInnis's challenges don't end with changing the subject.

"Another potential problem is what donors are going to do," Atkinson notes. "Campaigns are expensive, and we know John Hickenlooper can raise lots of money. He's very good at that -- and if the Republicans aren't able to match him, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with people thinking, 'We can't win.'"

What about Brophy's hope that the winner of the August Republican primary will decide to stand down for the good of the party, allowing an executive committee to choose a replacement with less negative baggage than either McInnis or Maes?

"I think the chances are slim," Atkinson concedes. "I think they're better with somebody like McInnis, who's shown a propensity to step aside for the cause, than with Dan Maes, who's never run for anything before."

Plus, "you'd have somebody who's been approved by the Republican primary voters," she notes. "So it's going to be awfully hard to talk them into not running unless there's a huge spread in the polls or they can't raise any money or get any traction at all. And if you do convince them, you'd better have somebody who's pretty well known and defined to the public to run. Because there's no guarantee that the people who decided they were going to run in January will decide they want to run in September."

Of course, Tom Tancredo, who shelved plans for a gubernatorial bid after making a deal with the McInnis forces, has already said he's still interested in the governor's office, and he topped a Denver Post exploring possible replacements for McInnis.

However, Atkinson feels Tancredo's polling triumph was probably more about name recognition than anything else. Besides, "if you're going to back a candidate based on polling, they'd better not have a lot of negatives" -- and there's no denying that Tancredo's immigration stance makes him a controversial figure among Republicans as well as Democrats.

In her opinion, "the challenges he was facing last winter are the same ones he'd face now. He has crusaded on a single subject for a really long time, and I think he's done that intentionally, because he wants to make a difference in that area. But the offshoot of that is, he's defined in people's minds as only being about that issue. And there's not much time to change from a one-issue candidate to a multi-faceted candidate."

As for Josh Penry, who dropped out of the race amid rumors that he simply couldn't afford to continue to challenge McInnis (he's currently senate hopeful Jane Norton's campaign manager), Atkinson says, "I don' t think he has high name recognition at all right now." And while she hasn't "figured out a way to crawl inside his head and find out what was the basis of him not running, whether it was family issues or he needed income or whatever, those haven't changed since he pulled out. Although if it was simply that he wasn't able to raise enough money, he might reconsider."

Atkinson believes Republicans' dream candidate remains Hank Brown, a former U.S. Senator who impressed observers of all political stripes with his work helping the University of Colorado at Boulder emerge from various scandals earlier this decade. But thus far he's resisted all attempts to goad him back into politics -- which explains why there's an Internet campaign trying to gin up interest in the current CU president, Bruce Benson. Problem is, Benson's already lost the governor's race once -- back in 1994, to Roy Romer. Voters may see him as yesterday's news.

All of which means McInnis could very well wind up being the Republican nominee for governor -- and in this year, of all years, Atkinson can see a scenario in which he might still win.

"Voters could look at him and say, 'That whole thing was really stupid, but we think he's learned his lesson -- and we think he's got the right approach to the issues,'" she allows. "That's entirely possible. And Hickenlooper has said he's not going to run negative ads -- although my guess is, there's a 527 out there willing to run negative ads on his behalf. And it would be something that would hound Scott.

"The question is, can he come through this and still have the credibility with voters to carry a message. That's the key: Will they listen to what he has to say in thirty days, or will he have damaged his credibility so much that he can't carry a message? And then it becomes hopeless."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts