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By Shannon McCaffrey

ATLANTA - By defying Gov. Sonny Perdue and refusing to file a lawsuit over a new federal health care law, Georgia's Democratic attorney general has made himself the target of a Republican impeachment effort and, in the process, energized his bid for governor.

The onslaught of GOP ire directed at Thurbert Baker is winning the state's top lawyer credibility within the Democratic party base and a flurry of free media attention. It's good news for Baker, who's been struggling to gain ground against former Gov. Roy Barnes, widely seen as the front-runner in a crowded five-way, Democratic primary.

Whether the attention will translate into votes remains to be seen.

"In the short term, this definitely helps," said Democratic strategist Rick Dent, who has worked on campaigns in Alabama and Georgia. "He gets to look a little like a folk hero fighting the Republicans."

Last week, Baker refused a request by Perdue to file a lawsuit on behalf of Georgia challenging the constitutionality of the federal health care law. Baker said the state lacked a viable legal claim and the challenge - which he said was likely to fail - would cost the state money it could ill afford.

The decision enraged Georgia Republicans. Perdue fired back that he will select an outside lawyer to handle the state's case free of charge and said the governor's phone lines have been clogged with calls urging the state to sue.

GOP lawmakers last week filed a resolution directing Baker to comply with Perdue's request and file the lawsuit. Then on Tuesday, 31 Republican lawmakers introduced a resolution to impeach Baker for abdicating his constitutional duty.

The measure isn't expected to make it to a floor vote. House Speaker David Ralston has been cool to the plan.

But the political standoff could serve Baker well in the Democratic primary, when party loyalists are more likely to come to the polls.

"This resonates very well with the majority of people likely to vote in the Democratic primary," University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said.

Bullock noted the fight also gives Baker "tremendous amounts of free media" in a race where he trails in fundraising.

The most recent campaign finance reports show Barnes, a one-term governor who was defeated in 2002 by Perdue, has raised $2.7 million for his comeback bid. In comparison, Baker has taken in $1.4 million, the second largest total among Democrats in the race.

And while Barnes has been free to raise campaign cash in recent weeks, Baker has been unable to do so since the state Legislature went into session Jan. 11. As an elected state official, Baker is barred from raising money during the session. Lawmakers are not expected to depart the Capitol until mid-April at the earliest.

For his part, Baker said politics played no role in his decision not to pursue a lawsuit.

"In my 13 years as attorney general, politics has never driven my decisions," Baker said in a telephone interview. "It never has and it hasn't in this case."

But the benefits could come all the same.

Kristina Simms, president of the Georgia Democratic Federation of Women, said Baker's decision not to sue enhances her opinion of him.

"I'm happy he did it and I agree such a lawsuit would be political posturing," said Simms, who remains undecided in the race.

Baker is not known as a partisan warrior and keeps a low profile as attorney general. But he has sparred with Perdue before. In 2003, the two battled over redistricting, and the Georgia Supreme Court ultimately sided with Baker 5-2.

In addition to Barnes, the other Democrats in the race are House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, former Georgia National Guard Commander David Poythress and Ray City Mayor Carl Camon.

Barnes has said he backs Baker's decision.

"Unless the law has changed a whole lot since I have been running for governor, this is a frivolous political stunt that would waste the states dwindling resources," Barnes said in a statement.

Seven Republicans are also running to replace Perdue, who is prohibited by term limits from seeking a third term.

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