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Suthers: brilliant or bust?

Between the Lines

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You never know where you might see John Suthers next. Colorado's attorney general might pop up at a social event, a local reception honoring the U.S. Olympic Committee, or perhaps even making national news.

Any of the above could have been correct in recent days. One might even draw the conclusion that Suthers is trying to assume a larger public persona.

Not just as attorney general, but something more substantial. Suthers is acting more like he wants to be better-known as the power player in Colorado's Republican party.

He would never say so, of course. If you ask Suthers, he'll insist he's just doing his job — and that he fully supports former congressman Scott McInnis to become Colorado's next governor. Suthers definitely doesn't act like a candidate himself, though he's running for a final term as attorney general in the 2010 election. (Without opposition so far, but perhaps not for long.)

Then he calls a news conference, faces the media and announces he is joining a lawsuit with the attorneys general (always hated that plural version, but it's correct) of 12 other states to challenge the health care reform legislation just passed by Congress. Specifically, Suthers opposes the government forcing people to buy health insurance.

Never mind that car owners already are required by law to have auto insurance. And never mind that the initial idea of mandatory health insurance surfaced in Congress during the 1990s — pushed by Republicans.

Suthers insists that he's doing this solely on principle, and those who know him well from his years as district attorney in Colorado Springs might agree. He hasn't been vulnerable to political coercion in the past, as was evident last year when many Colorado Republicans wanted him to run for the U.S. Senate in 2010 against Michael Bennet, or perhaps against Gov. Bill Ritter (before McInnis emerged and Ritter exited).

Lots of party insiders would have flocked to support Suthers, and he knew it. But he made it clear he had no taste for having to raise that much money, saying he was content to continue as attorney general and to help campaign for other Republicans.

Now, though, many in the GOP probably wish privately that Suthers had made that jump into the Senate race, given the uncertainty in the Republican primary race with former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, a lightweight loose cannon if ever there was one, threatened now by former state legislator Tom Wiens and Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck. At this point, any of those three very well could lose in November to either Democratic candidate, Bennet or Andrew Romanoff.

So, instead, Suthers is grandstanding against health care reform, joining a lawsuit initially filed in northern Florida, where Rush Limbaugh might well be viewed by many as left of center. Democrats have jumped to criticize Suthers, including state Senate Majority Leader John Morse of Colorado Springs, who's been quoted as saying, "This litigation is based on the ideology of the extreme right wing, instead of being based on compassion for the 800,000 uninsured men, women and children in Colorado."

Yet Suthers pushes on, espousing the same negativism that has become the national GOP's brand. And by the way, McInnis has Suthers' back, saying that "the attorney general was right to join with his colleagues from around the country and speak out for basic constitutional principles."

Where is this headed? And where might Suthers be headed? He envisions an aggressive Republican machine running the state, led by McInnis and himself along with a new lieutenant governor — who still could be Sallie Clark.

But it might be dangerous, for Republicans and Suthers, to count too much on anti-health care backlash carrying them all the way to November. That's a long time for Democrats to clarify, and magnify, all the positive aspects of health care reform, and to eventually swing public opinion their way. And if the GOP doesn't identify itself by offering anything of substance more than anti-health care, the Dems very well might strengthen their hold on Colorado, led by John Hickenlooper as the next governor with either Bennet or Romanoff in the Senate.

In other words, John Suthers' lawsuit in March could help lead to another Republican debacle in November. And if it does, he'll have nobody to blame but himself.

routon@csindy.com

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