Reed wages battle for political future

Is Ralph Reed finished? Some astute observers tell me kingpin lobbyist Jack Abramoff's plea bargain with federal prosecutors is all but certain to wreck Reed's budding political career and may even force him to fight for his freedom in federal court.

These wise political watchers may be right. At the moment, all public signs point to a collapse of Reed's bid for lieutenant governor.

The tea leaves indicate strongly that state Sen. Casey Cagle, a Gainesville Republican, is on his way to becoming lieutenant governor. Democrats have not been able to find a candidate who can raise sufficient campaign funds.

Hold the tea leaves, though. Forget allegations that Reed, a Duluth resident, was part of Abramoff's team of accused congressional corrupters. Set aside reports that Reed participated in a deception of Indian casino operators and helped Abramoff and his pals drain millions from the tribal treasuries.

Remember this: Ralph Reed has not been officially accused of anything. The former national Christian Coalition chief has said he's sorry he went to work for his old friend Abramoff to stall certain gambling operations in the South.

"If I knew then what I know now, I would not have participated," Reed has said. The Indians never paid Reed directly. Abramoff's firm wrote the checks.

Reed proclaims his honesty and his dedication to family values. Those values include stamping out organized gambling. When he worked for Abramoff's clients, he has told friends that he saw himself as a foot soldier against gambling and nothing more. He also considered Abramoff a close and loyal friend of 20 years. (He introduced Abramoff and wife Pam, who was a UGA student at the time.) Whether Abramoff, in his secret plea bargain, has implicated Reed as a criminal accomplice remains to be seen.

Next week, Reed's campaign will report record contributions, much of the money collected after his Abramoff connection appeared certain to expand into part of a historic scandal.

Although Reed "has certainly been hammered," Sadie Fields, head of the Georgia Christian Coalition and a Reed supporter, says she doubts that he has lost many followers.

In fact, if Reed survives, the Abramoff scandal may even make him stronger, a noted Democratic leader says ruefully. "Reed will become a cult figure. He may be unstoppable in the primary," says the Democrat.

Despite the headlines and TV coverage of Reed's linkage to Abramoff, the 44-year-old candidate appears to be holding onto his lead in a couple of confidential polls because:

•Reed's name recognition remains high among Republican primary voters. He is remembered among GOP stalwarts for leading President George W. Bush's second election sweep of the South and for chairing the Georgia Republican Party during its historic "takeover election" in 2002. Some Republicans see Reed as the antithesis of Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean.

•The Abramoff scandal is complicated and Washington-oriented. Though a number of Georgia congressmen received Abramoff contributions, the sums were penny-ante compared to the big bucks doled out to more influential lawmakers.

•To many folks, political ethics is a boring inside-baseball issue. How else does one explain the seemingly risky GOP-led decision to fire Georgia Ethics Commission director Teddy Lee? The ousted director had presided over the fining of Gov. Sonny Perdue for ethical lapses. Polls indicate that when it comes to "ethics," the public's eyes glaze over. Besides, some Republican voters believe the liberal media is using ethics issues, including the Abramoff case, as just another tool to discredit conservative policies.

•In past years, state Sen. Cagle would have been considered a solidly mainstream candidate for lieutenant governor. Against Reed, he appears almost a fringe figure. To make Reed appear unsuitable as the party's nominee, Cagle must mount a massive paid-media campaign. Such a strategy would require millions - which will not be available for the down-ballot lieutenant governor's race.

In addition, Reed has withstood storms of controversy in the past. Presidential candidate John McCain blamed Reed for using smear tactics in the 2000 presidential primaries. Democrats have claimed he used racist slurs to promote white Republicans in state and local races. Even so, Reed remains a poster boy for many family-values activists.

Of course, criminal charges against Reed could send his political stock plummeting overnight, forcing Reed to shift into full-time defense mode. If that occurs, Sen. Cagle becomes a shoo-in primary winner, and Democratic candidate-recruiting efforts improve markedly.

Neither Reed nor his principal supporters will comment on such a scenario.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.