By Dan Balz
Thursday, July 22, 2010; A02
DENVER -- When the 2010 election cycle began last year, national Republicans viewed Colorado as one of their best opportunities to take a governor's office from the Democrats. Today they wonder whether they'll even have a viable candidate for November.
The transformation in Republican fortunes in the gubernatorial race here underscores one of the realities of this election year. No matter how positive the political environment, candidates say and do dumb things. In Colorado, Scott McInnis is Exhibit A.
McInnis, a former House member, has gone from leading candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination to virtual pariah within his party in a matter of days, thanks to a plagiarism scandal brought to light by the Denver Post and the candidate's initial efforts to duck responsibility.
Two newspapers -- the Denver Post and the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, which is from McInnis's home territory -- have called for him to quit the race. Jane Norton, one of the party's top candidates for the Senate nomination, has publicly rebuked him. "I think he's still got a lot of questions that still need to be answered," she said.
Meanwhile, top strategists privately lament that McInnis's presence on the GOP ticket this fall would be a drag on candidates in other races -- when prospects for significant gains are bright.
Although still favored in the primary Aug. 10, McInnis likely will face further scrutiny and pressure from within his party, especially if post-primary polls show him trailing Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, the expected Democratic nominee.
McInnis has brushed aside calls for him to get out of the race and has been back on the campaign trail in recent days. But speculation about possible replacements continues and party officials, in the state and nationally, have studied the legal options available to them to make a change.
"The acid period is between the 10th and after Labor Day," said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster and analyst.
For now, Republicans are stuck with a series of bad options. Forcing McInnis out before the primary would leave Republicans with only one other candidate, businessman Dan Maes, on the gubernatorial ballots, which were sent out to voters this week.
Maes has attracted some support from "tea party" activists, but is widely seen by others in his party as a weak general election candidate. He recently was fined for campaign finance irregularities, including paying himself $42,000 for mileage costs. Maes, in a telephone interview, called the charges "politically motivated" and said that his were "honest mistakes."
The Denver Post reported Wednesday that Maes, who touts his business experience as his major asset to be governor, has been a struggling small-business man whose income in recent years has been at or below the federal poverty level.
For those reasons, GOP leaders were not eager to force McInnis out of the race before the primary. As one top strategist, who declined to speak on the record in order to provide a candid assessment, said: If Maes wins the primary, "we're stuck with him."
The McInnis scandal grew out of a relationship with the Colorado-based Hasan Family Foundation. The foundation brought McInnis on as a fellow, with a $300,000 contract, to speak and write about water issues. But essays he produced turned out to have been lifted in part from work done a quarter-century ago by a man who is now a justice on the Colorado Supreme Court.
The foundation chairwoman, Seeme Hasan, issued a statement saying she was "shocked, angry and disappointed" with McInnis, who she said had submitted the work as original. She said the foundation would demand that McInnis repay the money if the charges proved accurate.
McInnis initially blamed a respected water engineer, Rolly Fischer, for the error, saying he had taken Fischer's research without question. McInnis's campaign also tried to get Fischer to sign a letter conceding that he was at fault, Fischer said. Fischer refused.
McInnis has since taken responsibility for the plagiarism and has said he will pay back the money he received from the foundation.
An aide said McInnis's schedule precluded an interview for this article. On Monday, campaigning in southern Colorado, McInnis told reporters he would continue his bid for the nomination.
Party strategists worry that, if McInnis wins the primary, he will stay in the race, regardless of what the polls project for November. They fear his money will dry up, giving Hickenlooper a big advantage.
If McInnis were to step aside after the primary, the 24-member state executive committee could then name a replacement candidate. Names of possible replacements have been floated in GOP circles in the past week.
But replacing McInnis after the primary would be a messy solution that would leave the party open to charges of backroom dealing in a year when voters have shown their anger at the political establishment in both parties. A replacement candidate would face obstacles assembling a campaign operation on such short notice.
Republican Governors Association officials have offered no public comment on the McInnis controversy, other than to say they are still working to capture the governorship in November.
Dick Wadhams, the Colorado Republican chairman, said his party remains determined to win the governor's race in November.