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Reed seeks redemption after political exodus

July 25, 2009|By GREG BLUESTEIN

ATLANTA - Ralph Reed was once a powerful force in Republican politics, able to marshal millions of religious conservatives to the polls while leading the Christian Coalition.

Then his political career took a tumble in 2006 when he was clobbered by a lesser-known opponent in the Republican primary for Georgia lieutenant governor, leading some to conclude Reed's days as an influential GOP figure were over.

But Reed is searching for a dose of redemption. He's launched a new venture that supporters hope will bolster a Republican Party struggling to find its footing after the 2008 election and a recent string of embarrassing scandals.

"I don't view it as a comeback," Reed said in a recent interview. "I view it as something I've always done - trying to be part of the solution and trying to build at the grass roots."

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The startup, known as the Faith and Freedom Coalition, is little more than a Web site, but Reed hopes to turn it into a strident new force that uses social media to capture a broader, younger and more diverse audience.

Perhaps most telling, the man who helped cement religious conservatives into a solid GOP voting bloc said he won't focus his group on social issues, but rather the economic crisis.

"This is not the Christian Coalition redux," Reed said. "It's a much broader attempt. Our primary focus is jobs, the economy, taxes, creating economic opportunity. That's the number one issue in the country right now."

The 48-year-old will have his work cut out for him.

He could still be dogged by ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and will need to overcome concerns that contributed to his embarrassing campaign loss in 2006. And Reed faces a new political landscape in the aftermath of President Barack Obama's historic election.

Some of his former allies doubt lightning can strike twice.

Billy McCormack, a founding member of the Christian Coalition, said Reed helped ignite a conservative base in the 1990s that was like "packed dynamite" searching for a spark.

"It's not likely the second match will produce as much power," said McCormack, a Louisiana pastor who still sits on the coalition's board. "The likelihood of him being able to repeat that is difficult."

Still, some religious conservatives appear hopeful of his return. There are still plenty of groups seeking to represent evangelicals in the political arena, but former colleagues say Reed's exodus left a huge void at the grass roots level.

"No one is organizing at the precinct and county level like the Christian Coalition did," said Joel Vaughan, who worked with Reed at the coalition through the 1990s and wrote the recent book "The Rise and Fall of the Christian Coalition: The Inside Story."

"And if Ralph can do that, I say more power to him," Vaughan said.

Reed was at the helm of the Christian Coalition from 1989 to 1997, leading the organization founded by Pat Robertson to national prominence and helping to transform the Christian right into a political powerhouse. Reed become a rising star of the GOP and earned a cover story in Time magazine.

After Reed stepped down in 1997 to court Christian conservative voters for Bush's 2000 campaign, the group's influence and fundraising ability began to wane. In 2001, Robertson severed ties with the coalition to concentrate on his ministry.

Reed returned to the Atlanta suburbs to help engineer the rise of GOP politics in Georgia, then a Democratic stronghold despite its conservative leanings. He chaired the state party during the 2002 elections, when voters elected the first Republican governor since 1872, gained control of the state Senate for the first time in generations and ousted Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Cleland.

Reed's rise eventually met a swift fall. His decision to put a new face forward - his own - turned disastrous in 2006 when he was sideswiped by the scandal involving Abramoff, who had hired Reed's public relations and lobbying businesses to battle the opening of casinos that would compete with Abramoff's American Indian clients.

Reed was never charged with a crime, nor was he called to testify before a U.S. Senate committee investigating the lobbyist. But few doubt his defeat in the primary at the hands of a little-known state senator was linked to his ties to Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to corruption.

Those links could continue to haunt him, analysts and former colleagues say.

McCormack said the Abramoff fallout still rankles many of Reed's former adherents. John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, said Reed will have to work to return to the good graces of Christian conservatives.

It "hurt him in the eyes of a lot of people who had been supporting him," Green said. "I don't know whether it will be a big impediment, but in all likelihood it won't help him."

And potential rivals say there's plenty of room for more like-minded movements.

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