So far, so good for Ralph Reed

Matt Towery
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Posted: May 25, 2006 12:05 PM

I've been interviewed for nearly as many stories about Ralph Reed as I've read.
 
Recall that Reed is the former Christian Coalition leader who is running for lieutenant governor of Georgia as his first try at elected office.

From Rolling Stone magazine to Newsweek, there has been no shortage of those seeking to get a handle on Reed's candidacy. So I figure it's timely to offer additional perspective on Reed, his ambitions and the remarkably intense interest surrounding him.

For starters, here are the two questions I'm asked most often. 

One, is Ralph Reed's current candidacy an attempted prelude to future runs for higher offices?

Yes.

Two, has the web of political scandal surrounding Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the defrauding of Indian tribes hurt Reed's candidacy?

Few would be surprised if it did. The mud-wallowing in the nation's capital has been linked to Reed and has captivated the political consciousness of this town.

But the truth is, Reed has gone largely untouched by it all.

Why? Because his Republican opponent for lieutenant governor has yet to lay a glove on the angelic-looking Reed in the medium that counts -- television. And oddly accruing to his advantage in this situation -- sorry, Reed fans -- he just isn't that well-known in his home state. This is partly because he hasn't yet aired any television commercials promoting his candidacy.

Despite reams of negative press in Georgia, our InsiderAdvantage polls show only minor damage to Reed among voters in general, and virtually none among Republicans. And it's they who will vote in the Georgia primary to select a GOP nominee.

Reed sits on a pile of campaign funds, although much of it has come from outside of his home state. But that's to be expected from a candidate who is better known in national political and media circles than he is among home voters. That's not necessarily a bad thing for him.

Reed's Republican opponent is state Sen. Casey Cagle, a well-spoken man who has raised a competitive amount of money himself, and who could appeal to the moderate GOP women who will be the critical swing votes in the primary.

Cagle must define Reed to these voters. His ads must paint Reed's alleged lobbying problems in dark colors. And he must successfully portray Reed as a political extremist.

Polling so far shows that voters are as indifferent to Reed's Abramoff connection as the pundits are intrigued with it. Apparently, most Georgians view Reed as nothing more, nor less, than a mainstream politician and a straight shooter.

My best guess is that Reed's opponent Cagle will wait too late to attack Reed. So far, his own modest media ads have focused on establishing name ID for himself.

Before Cagle gets around to portraying Reed's "dark side," Reed will likely have swamped Republican voters with a wash of slick ads portraying himself as a mainstream guy for Georgia's mainstream, Republican-dominated voting populace.

Cagle does have the backing of most of the Republicans in the Georgia state Senate. These grass roots might help in a tight race.

Then again, Reed is "Mr. Grassroots," having presided over the Southeastern states' turnout effort in President Bush's 2004 campaign.

For Reed to lose in the primary, the all-important GOP moderate voters must somehow be sold the idea that Reed is the ultimate Washington insider for special interests. Or, alternately, that he simply is too far to the right on social issues to appease the huge metro-Atlanta voter base that dominates Republican primaries with its more middle-of-the-road perspective on things like stem cell research and abortion.

That's a tall order for Cagle to fill in just a few months.

If Reed should win the nomination, he's a shoo-in, right?

Not necessarily. As with many large Southern states, Georgia can be divided into three voter blocs of equal parts. The state is roughly one-third Republican, one-third Democrat, and one-third independent.

Fortunately for Reed, incumbent Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue is surging in popularity as he enters the summer. He is running strong television ads and is favored to be re-elected.

In Georgia, the governor and "lite guv," as they say, run separately. But that's only by formality. The two are seen as a ticket.

Finally, the Democrats' strategy eventually will alter the TV-ad landscape. The Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor are generally seen as weak, if for no other reason than they have trouble raising money.

But the most likely potential nominees have served as elected officials.

Unless the Democrats are insane, their gubernatorial nominee will attack Perdue by linking him to Reed, if Reed is the nominee. That's when the rubber would positively squeal against the road.

But will any Democrat have the money -- or the creativity -- to take all those media attack-articles on Reed and stitch them together into a cloth that can strangle Reed's candidacy -- and Perdue's?

And will the public even care one way or the other?

What an irony if in trying to knock off Gov. Perdue, the Democrats failed, but in the process, damaged Reed just enough to put a relative unknown in the lieutenant governor's seat.

But don't underestimate Reed. I don't think he has the smarts to craft a criminal scheme, but he's plenty smart enough to wiggle himself into office.