For a while, former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed looked almost unstoppable in his bid for lieutenant governor of Georgia. Then he got tripped up by the Jack Abramoff scandal.
In recent months, it was reported that Reed's public relations and lobbying businesses received $4.2 million from his longtime friend Abramoff to mobilize Christian voters to fight the opening of casinos that would compete with Abramoff's Indian tribe clients.
Now, Reed's little-known rival for the Republican nomination, fellow conservative Casey Cagle, is outpacing him in fundraising, and a recent poll shows Cagle could be as strong a candidate as Reed against a Democrat.
Reed has not been charged with a crime. But analysts say the boyish-looking, 44-year-old darling of the conservative movement and former adviser to GOP presidential campaigns appears to be in political trouble because of his ties to Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to corruption charges and admitted swindling his Indian clients.
"Early on, he monopolized fundraising, he called upon his ties with other Republicans and he had a huge advantage," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University. "But now, as these allegations have come out, it's hurt his ability to raise money and made other Republicans nervous. He's clearly in a much weaker position now than he was months ago."
On the campaign trial, Reed's Republican rival has been quick to exploit those ties to Abramoff. "The scandal is a national issue and Reed is right in the middle of it," said Cagle, a state senator. "It's not an issue that will go away."
On Friday, 21 of Georgia's 34 Republican state senators _ all Cagle supporters _ signed a letter urging Reed to withdraw from the race, saying his involvement in the Abramoff scandal "threatens to impact the entire Republican ticket."
Reed responded in a letter that he had no plans to quit: "Elections are won at the grassroots by the candidate with the strongest record and best ideas. That is why I am confident of victory."
Reed has retreated to campaign appearances with the party faithful. But even there, audience members browbeat him over Abramoff. Reed often responds with regret.
"Had I known then what I know now, I would not have done that work," he said. "On reflection, I should have turned it down."
In a poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in late December, voters were asked about hypothetical match-ups between Reed and an unnamed Democrat, and Cagle and an unnamed Democrat. In the race involving Reed, 36 percent chose the Democrat and 33 percent picked Reed. As for the Cagle race, 35 percent preferred the lesser-known lawmaker, while 30 percent choose the Democrat.
Reed is making his first bid for elective office, seeking a post that has little power but is regarded as a steppingstone to bigger things.
He raked in $1.4 million in the first six months of 2005 but only about $400,000 in the second half of the year. Cagle, meanwhile, raised more than $600,000 in the same six-month span.
Since Abramoff's fall, some of Reed's supporters have jumped ship. One of them, Clint Murphy, volunteered to help Reed soon after he declared his candidacy last February. But as allegations about Reed's ties to Abramoff surfaced, Murphy's concerns grew.
"Everything that's come out has proven my gut feeling about that man," said Murphy, who is now backing Cagle. "He is in it for Ralph Reed. And that's fine. A little ambition has never hurt anybody. But when you're not truthful, you're doing a disservice."
Reed was chairman of the Georgia GOP during the 2002 elections, when the party pulled off upset victories to elect the state's first Republican governor since 1872, Sonny Perdue.
Reed and his supporters say there is still plenty of time before the July 18 primary to turn the campaign's attention away from Abramoff. Reed also has 22 campaign fundraisers scheduled between now and the end of March.
If he beats Cagle, Reed would face a Democrat with negligible name recognition in November. The current lieutenant governor, Democrat Mark Taylor, is running for governor. (In Georgia, the lieutenant governor is elected separately from the governor.)
"I never thought anybody was going to hand this office to me. I thought I was going to go out and work for it," Reed said in an interview. "And I'm working very hard."
LINK: Ralph Reed's First Try for Office Falters
Perfect, but it gets even better. A few months later Reed got his from Christopher Hitchens on live television.