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What happened to Ralph Reed?

"Brain surgeons should never try to operate on themselves," former Gov. Carl Sanders reportedly once said of a successful political consultant who became a failed statewide political candidate. Ralph Reed should have taken heed.

If Reed wins Tuesday's GOP primary for lieutenant governor, we will know one thing for sure. The age of miracles is not over. The Christian Coalition guy needs a miracle to save his political career.

In less than six months, Reed has gone from smartest guy in the room to pitiful punching bag. Never has a major candidate fallen victim to so much piling on. On his way to victim status, he has become a great but unwilling unifier. Left-wing lunatics have joined forces with right-wing nuts to make certain Reed's political career doesn't take wing. Democrats have grabbed Republican ballots just to vote against Reed.

Reed may be the first Georgia candidate ever to stand accused of covering up prostitution on Saipan. To hear his foes tell it, that is among the least of RR's many sins.

If you believe the direct mail brochures, you have to wonder why Reed is not at the top of TV's "Ten Most Wanted." The video commercials against him look like promotions for network crime dramas.

To be sure, Casey Cagle has run a splendidly relentless campaign against the world-famous Reed. If Cagle wins the primary, he also makes history. The state senator from Gainesville will have convinced Georgians for the first time since 1839 that cheating Indians (even Indian gamblers) is a bad thing to do. Cagle has accused Reed of being the biggest double-crosser of Native Americans since the Cherokees were tricked into a forced march to Oklahoma.

Just think: Two years ago, Reed was director of President George W. Bush's uber-successful re-election campaign in the South. Reed was considered by many to be the most capable state Republican chairman Georgia has ever seen. Rudy Giuliani, the heroic mayor of New York and possible presidential candidate, came to Atlanta to help Reed raise campaign funds. Zell Miller, Georgia's most popular political figure, endorsed Reed and launched a telephone campaign on his behalf. Sadie Fields, the influential leader of the Georgia Christian Coalition, went to bat for Reed.

However, about a month ago, the wheels on Reed's campaign bandwagon began to wobble. Then they fell off. UGA ought to offer its political science majors a full-credit course titled "What Happened to Ralph Reed."

As smart as Ralph is, he broke nearly every rule for getting elected in Georgia.

Consider:

•Reed won every TV debate hands down. Georgians do not like smart-aleck debate champions. Our political graveyard is full of candidates who prevailed in candidate forums - Roy Barnes, Herman Talmadge, Wyche Fowler, Bob Barr, etc. Reed would have won more friends and sympathy if he had slipped and fallen off a platform or lost his train of thought when he tried to answer questions.

•By constantly portraying himself as the champion of virtue, he might as well have said to his opponents: "Catch me if you think you can." Dirt shows up most on white hats. See Mike Bowers for governor 1998.

•Reed began his campaign as the presumed favorite. That image helped him raise money early, but he broke a time-tested rule: Always run as an underdog. Ask Sonny Perdue and Jimmy Carter. Both played underdog roles perfectly and won their respective races handily. Two days before the primary, Reed appears, at last, to have attained underdog status, but it may be too late to help him.

•Reed looked too scrubbed, sounded too sophisticated and seemed too successful. Georgia voters don't like candidates who appear too clean, too civilized or even too thriving. See Carl Sanders 1970.

•Ties to Washington, even positive ones, are a liability in a Georgia election for state office. The late Congressman Bo Ginn, a first-rate federal lawmaker, lost the governor's race in 1982 partly because he couldn't shake his public image as a Washington creature.

•The ghosts of old grudges can kill a candidate. Specters of burnt bridges have haunted Reed throughout the campaign. Men and women who had worked for Reed's lobbying firm were key players in designing Cagle's campaign to defeat RR. They knew where to look for the real dirt and appeared eager to find it.

On the other hand, my pre-primary postmortem could be all wrong. The primary is not over until it's over. A weekend surprise - a contrived but dramatic turn of events - is still possible. Reed just might win Tuesday. If he does, I'll eat crow. And Casey Cagle may have to move to Alabama or even Canada.

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.