Ralph Reed Running in Abramoff's Shadow

Ralph Reed was once the face of the Christian Coalition. Then he became a high-powered lobbyist. Now he is a candidate for lieutenant governor of Georgia. But his new political ascension is threatened by his past association with Jack Abramoff.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliot.

One of Washington's parlor games these days is trying to guess who on Capitol Hill or in the Bush administration might be caught up in the Jack Abramoff scandal. Abramoff is the Republican lobbyist who pleaded guilty to corruption charges earlier this month.

But the scandal reaches far beyond Washington; among others, it's dogging Ralph Reed; once the youthful leader of the Christian Coalition, now running for lieutenant governor of Georgia.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

Ralph Reed and Jack Abramoff go back a long way together. In the early 1980s they ran the National College Republicans Organization. Abramoff met his future wife through Ralph Reed. Reed's problem with Abramoff began in 1998; he just didn't know it at the time. He had left the Christian Coalition to be a political consultant and he sent Abramoff an email. Quote, "Hey, now that I'm done with the electoral politics, I need to start humping in corporate accounts. I'm counting on you to help me with some contacts," unquote.

Within a few months, Abramoff had hired Reed to help kill off proposals for state-sponsored gambling in Alabama. Their client was the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians who didn't want competition for their own casinos. Similar projects followed.

(Sound bite of people chanting)

Now, Reed wants the Republican nomination to be lieutenant governor of Georgia. Last week, the Christian Coalition of Georgia held a candidates' debate. It could have been like a homecoming for Reed, but the crowd seemed about evenly divided between him and his chief rival, a veteran state senator named Casey Cagle.

The debate moderator was conservative talk show host, Martha Zoller.

Ms. MARTHA ZOLLER (Talk Show Radio Host): The first question: as Christians we're held to a higher standard, people are always looking for us to fall. Is there anything you've done in your political life that you wished you hadn't done, or would do different today?

OVERBY: Reed was ready.

Mr. RALPH REED (Candidate, Lieutenant Governor of Georgia): I thought I might get that question. Look, I have been a longtime opponent of casino gambling expansion.

OVERBY: He went on to say that he'd been asked by a longtime friend, that would be Abramoff, to help stop the expansion of casinos.

Mr. REED: With the understanding that I would not be paid by any revenues that derived from gambling. I relied on those assurances. If I knew then what I know now, I obviously wouldn't have done that work.

OVERBY: Whether that really was the understanding isn't clear. For instance, emails from Abramoff's law firm computer shows that Reed knew the Choctaw tribe was putting up money; although the Choctaw have other sources of income besides than gambling.

In any case, Reed has another strategy, too - he played the liberal media card.

Mr. REED: Let me tell you what I don't appreciate and what I think the voters of Georgia are going to reject. And that is an unfair attempt by the liberal media and others to engage in guilt by association. And to associate me with the misdeeds of others, it's wrong and it's going to be rejected at the ballot box.

(Sound bite of people cheering)

OVERBY: Candidate Cagle never directly attacked Reed. After the debate he used the old-fashioned tactic of viewing the scandal in sadness and not in anger.

Mr. CASEY CAGLE (Candidate, Lieutenant Governor of Georgia): Obviously, my opponent has to answer those questions and I will leave that to him to do. There are clear indications that through email and other sources that would call someone to doubt.

OVERBY: And doubt there are. Michelle Hamlin of Atlanta was at the debate. She said she wasn't wild about Cagle.

Ms. MICHELLE HAMLIN (At Lieutenant Governor Debate): And I'm not impressed with Reed either because I know that from everything I've read, he's strongly in cahoots with the Abramoff scandal. And I kind of like him but I think he's a hypocrite. So, I don't know what I'm going to do.

OVERBY: This leaves Georgia Republicans with a problem. Governor Sonny Purdue looks strong in his own re-election bid. But a recent poll suggests that Reed as a running mate would be a drag on the entire Republican slate.

Mr. MATT TOWERY (Former Republican Strategist): I still think there's a chance that he will be prevailed upon to drop out.

OVERBY: Matt Towery is a former Republican strategist and candidate, now he publishes political newsletters in Atlanta.

Mr. TOWERY: There is sort of a sotto voce belief that the White House will come to the rescue and say Ralph you need to take a pass on this. I don't think that will happen.

OVERBY: Reed isn't giving interviews to out-of-state media. Meanwhile, he's lost his early fundraising momentum. And last week, nine members of Reed's steering committee switched to Casey Cagle.

Peter Overby, NPR News.

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