Word that Ralph Reed plans to seek the lieutenant governorship of Georgia signals what friends say is the former Christian Coalition executive director's ultimate ambition -- 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
A Bush White House favorite, Mr. Reed would have to give up his lucrative campaign-consulting business in order to run for a relatively minor office in his home state.
Associates say Mr. Reed, 43, whose picture first appeared on the cover of Time magazine nearly 10 years ago, hopes to use the lieutenant governor's job to position himself to run for Georgia governor. Friends also say the Atlanta-based consultant's long-held ambition is ultimately to win for himself the Republican presidential nomination that, as a campaign adviser, he has helped others to seek.
"First, he's got to get his foot in the door" of electoral politics, a Republican friend of Mr. Reed's confided, adding that the political calendar in Georgia dictates that "his move has to be next year."
Georgia Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat, is expected to run for his party's gubernatorial nomination in 2006, leaving the lieutenant governor's post up for grabs.
Georgia's Republican governor, Sonny Perdue, if re-elected in 2006, would leave office in early 2011 under state term limits.
"That's why Ralph has to make the move now; otherwise, he could be 64 years old and still waiting for the right opening," a Republican official and Reed associate said. "Some political operatives are content to be the political teachers, to show people how to run their campaigns -- others, like Reed, have been there and done that. They itch to be the candidate, to hold the office."
The Georgia governorship has already proved a steppingstone for one president -- Democrat Jimmy Carter.And in Georgia, a governor has muscle.
"The governor is more powerful than in Texas," said a Georgia Republican official, who asked not be named. And Republicans "don't have anybody" as a top-tier successor to Mr. Perdue, the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
If Mr. Reed can win the No. 2 spot next year, by 2010 he would already have a campaign organization, a donors list, a campaign kitty and four years of statewide elected office experience.
Word of his plans for elective office surfaced in Republican political circles earlier this month. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but other Republicans said that he has sounded out Republicans in Washington close to the White House, as well as Mr. Perdue and Georgia's two Republican senators, Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss.
From the time religious broadcaster and 1988 Republican presidential-nomination candidate Pat Robertson formed the Christian Coalition in 1989 until Mr. Reed left the coalition in 1997, he was considered to be a driving force behind its success. The coalition was widely credited with turning out millions of voters to support pro-life, "traditional values" Republican candidates.
The association of Mr. Reed's Atlanta consulting firm, Century Strategies, with two Republicans at the center of a federal gambling investigation involving Indian tribes and casinos has been mentioned in the state's generally Democrat-leaning newspapers, but neither the press nor the state Democratic Party has gone after Mr. Reed.
A state Democratic Party official said the reason for the lack of interest in that story is that "nobody much cares about a political operative -- but if he becomes a Republican candidate, that's different."
Mr. Reed, who has a doctorate in history from Atlanta's Emory University, won White House favor as a Bush 2000 campaign senior adviser, Georgia Republican Party chairman and, most recently, the Bush re-election campaign's Southeast regional director.
If elected lieutenant governor, Mr. Reed would take a considerable cut in income, friends say. The post pays $83,147 a year. Even the governor's annual salary, $127,303, is a pittance compared with what Mr. Reed earns as a successful campaign consultant and lobbyist.