MARIETTA, Ga. — Ralph Reed had a patriotic message for Republican voters on the Fourth of July.
“I’m the son of a Vietnam veteran,” the candidate for lieutenant governor told a packed crowd at yesterday’s Republican Party barbecue in Cobb County. “I learned early on that freedom isn’t free.”
Two weeks before his July 18 Republican primary showdown with state Sen. Casey Cagle, Mr. Reed is locked in a battle for political survival. On Monday, after weeks of attack ads from Mr. Reed, the Cagle campaign fired back with what Georgia pollster Matt Towery termed a “hydrogen bomb” — a TV ad accusing Mr. Reed of “betrayal” for his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
Mr. Reed, 45, who rose to national prominence as executive director of the Christian Coalition, has denied wrongdoing in the Abramoff affair. But the latest TV ad by Mr. Cagle — a 12-year state Senate veteran whom Mr. Reed has accused of tax dodging, ethical violations and opposing property rights — seems to have put the Reed camp in an angry mood.
“We don’t talk to out-of-state press,” Reed campaign manager Jared Thomas told The Washington Times yesterday, shortly after Mr. Reed and Mr. Cagle addressed the Republican faithful at Miller Park in this suburban Republican stronghold.
The new Cagle ad shows Mr. Reed being played as a face card in a poker hand, an allusion to the casino-lobbying scandal that has sent Abramoff and two associates to federal prison and caused Democrats to accuse the Republican Party of fostering a “culture of corruption.”
“What’s behind Ralph Reed’s false attacks?” an announcer asks in the Cagle ad being aired statewide. “A record of betrayal he’s desperate to hide. Reed said gambling is ‘immoral’ but took millions of dollars from convicted felon Jack Abramoff to help casinos.”
The Cagle campaign defended the ad by citing a Thursday report in the Wall Street Journal that “Abramoff appears to have funneled $4 million in fees from the Mississippi Choctaw to Mr. Reed’s consulting firm” through tax-exempt organizations.
A Reed spokesman accused Mr. Cagle of “false attacks and unfair guilt by association … a desperate attempt to distract voters from his own ethical conflicts,” a reference to Mr. Cagle’s role as chairman of the state Senate’s Finance Committee and his position on the board of a bank in his native Hall County.
A Cagle spokesman said the Reed campaign began the “air war” of negative ads.
“Their first ad was an attack on Casey, and I expect them to continue that strategy,” said Brad Alexander, press secretary to the Cagle campaign. “If Ralph’s desperate, all he knows how to do is attack.”
The most recent public poll, taken last Tuesday and Wednesday by Mr. Towery’s Insider Advantage firm, shows Mr. Reed with 32 percent support to 27 percent for Mr. Cagle, a north Georgia businessman.
The Reed lead is barely outside the four percentage point margin of error in that poll, however. The Cagle campaign’s internal polling — which includes what opinion analysts call “leaners” — shows their candidate ahead by as much as nine percentage points, Mr. Alexander said yesterday.
The Republican primary winner is expected to be a shoo-in for November because Georgia has increasingly shifted toward the Republican Party. A former chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, Mr. Reed played a role in that transformation, as he reminded the audience at yesterday’s barbecue.
“I’ve been building the Republican Party in Georgia for 30 years,” Mr. Reed said, explaining how he campaigned as a teenager in Stephens County to re-elect President Ford in 1976 — an unpopular position when Mr. Ford’s challenger was Georgia Democrat Jimmy Carter.