Watching Georgia

Posted: Jul 13, 2006 12:01 AM
Watching Georgia

It's showdown time in the Republican Party, and the lines are becoming increasingly fuzzy.

Those who follow this column know that the candidacy of Ralph Reed, former national leader of the Christian Coalition, has been of particular interest to me. He is running for lieutenant governor of Georgia.

For that matter, his race has proved to be of great interest to major news organizations across the nation. The difference is that I have known Reed since he was 20 years old. We have worked together on national and regional campaigns.

I find myself in a tough position. Because I lead a company that is polling and reporting on his race, others in my organization join me in sticking to our absolute rule of nonpartisanship. That includes playing no favorites in intra-party battles.

Complicating the situation is a trend we're seeing in some states. Sophisticated, "Christian-conservative" candidates such as Reed are being linked with the likes of Randall Terry, former leader of the anti-abortion movement "Operation Rescue." Terry is now in Florida, where he is taking on that state's former state Senate president Jim King in his bid for re-election.

What's amazing is that Reed's ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which have yet to produce any hint of a criminal indictment or even a targeted investigation of Reed, have become the center of national and even international media scrutiny.

Yet, it's Terry, last known as spokesperson for the family of "right-to-die" icon Terri Schiavo, who has in the past been characterized as a true extremist. His past includes skirmishes with the law, not to mention the Republican Party. And yet, Florida media have barely made mention of him.

To be fair, Terry insists he is a changed man; and there are always two sides to every story. This isn't a "trash Randall Terry" story.

Rather, I use his story -- or lack of one, lately -- to illustrate how a man like Reed, who served as George W. Bush's southeastern chairman in his 2004 re-election campaign, can be vilified so quickly, while candidate Terry, with a past of more tangible controversy, skates by the notice of the press.

Most significant is to consider what races like these are doing to the GOP around the nation.

In the instances of both Reed and Terry, their primary elections are expected to generate low voter turnout. In Reed's case, there is no gubernatorial contest of consequence, thus no top of the ticket to draw voters. In Terry's case, the Florida primary appears to be all but a lock for that state's perfectly polished attorney general, Charlie Crist, in his quest for the party's nomination for governor.

That means the participation of church-led voters becomes all the more important in down-ballot contests.

And therein lies the continuing battle within the GOP. In Reed's case, brutally tough but effective ads by his opponent, state Sen. Casey Cagle, have sent Reed tumbling in the polls. By midweek, prior to the election, he trailed Cagle in the latest InsiderAdvantage poll. Reed's best chance would be to mobilize the massive church-led efforts, which, by legend, he revved up for President Bush in Florida during the 2004 contest.

For my part, I've even discounted my own firm's polling because it is virtually impossible to gauge exactly how many thousands of "under the radar" votes Reed might produce on Election Day.

Still, having been sued just days before the vote by one of the aggrieved Indian tribes linked to the Abramoff scandal, Reed finds himself under attack from virtually every direction. Just last year, he told me that he had never expected the treatment by the press to be as tough and even nasty as he has been encountering.

It's ironic that an individual as well-spoken and politically successful as Reed could become the first political victim of the Abramoff affair. And that a highly respected major Republican leader such as King in Florida is left a potential target due to low voter turnout and as a direct result of media indifference to the far more convoluted and potentially alarming issues surrounding Terry.

If nothing else, this year's GOP primaries prove that the Republican Party is indeed in search of its next direction. And even among those candidates supported by the so-called Religious Right, there is confusion, either from too much or too little media scrutiny.

For Reed, it will take another of those political miracles for which he is so well-known to make it to the next round in his contest. For candidates like Terry, it might just take apathy and minimal political coverage to upset the apple cart.