Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Jack Abramoff scandal has not dealt the fatal blow to Ralph Reed’s electoral ambitions that some predicted, a new poll of Georgia Republican primary voters indicates.

Nor is Mr. Reed, once a close Abramoff friend and former director of the Christian Coalition, suffering significant loss of support among evangelical Christians — despite his campaign communications director’s sideline as a sexually graphic newspaper columnist.

Some Republican eyebrows were raised when Mr. Reed’s campaign for lieutenant governor hired Atlanta publicist Lisa Baron, whose column in an Atlanta weekly has ventured into risque subject matter in language not often publicly employed by Bible Belt social conservatives.

It’s apparently part of a strategy by Mr. Reed to downplay his Christian Coalition past and play up his “mainstream” Republican credentials.

The latest statewide poll finds 24 percent of likely Republican voters favor Mr. Reed in the July 11 primary, compared with 17 percent for Mr. Reed’s rival, state Sen. Casey Cagle. A surprising 59 percent were undecided in the poll by Matt Towery’s InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion Research, which surveyed 500 likely Republican primary voters March 14-17.

Insiders say Mr. Reed thinks he must win the lieutenant governorship this year in order to seek the governorship in 2010 — incumbent Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, if re-elected this year, cannot seek a third term. Mr. Reed has told friends he sees the governorship as a stepping-stone to a future presidential run.

Mr. Cagle’s supporters in the state Senate have called for Mr. Reed to quit the race, saying his Abramoff ties are hurting the GOP. Mr. Reed has ignored those requests.

Former chairman of the Georgia GOP and southeast regional chairman of President Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, Mr. Reed was once a Time magazine cover boy, but the new poll shows he is still unknown to Georgia voters — and that may work to his advantage.

“Nobody knows Reed right now, so Abramoff is not doing him much harm among Republicans,” says Mr. Towery, former campaign chairman for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a fellow Georgia Republican.

But another Towery poll found 26 percent of Georgia voters would be less likely to vote for the Republican governor if Mr. Reed were the lieutenant governor nominee. “Reed looks like a drag on Perdue, and Republicans have to decide if this trend to going to hold — and if Cagle is the better bet in that case,” Mr. Towery said.

Mr. Reed’s Century Strategies firm got $4.2 million from Abramoff to help persuade Christian leaders in Texas to oppose Indian casinos that would compete with tribes represented by Abramoff. Mr. Reed says he didn’t know the Abramoff money came from gambling interests and has said he regrets taking the money.

“I don’t think the Abramoff situation is going to finish off Ralph Reed,” Atlanta Republican activist Bob Meadows says. “I don’t hear much about the case locally, and I don’t think people really care very much.”

Marvin Olasky, an influential Christian conservative and former adviser to President Bush, has criticized Mr. Reed for “manipulating evangelicals” to aid Abramoff’s casino clients, saying Mr. Reed “has shamed the evangelical community.”

But Mr. Towery says the influence of Christian conservatives in the Georgia GOP has been exaggerated.

“The Georgia Republican primary is not made up of evangelical, pro-life voters as the press up North seems to think it is,” Mr. Towery said. “If that were the case, we would have an entirely different set of nominees.”

Nor are Republicans upset by his spokeswoman’s “hip” image. Mrs. Baron says Mr. Reed’s evangelical supporters understand he also has to appeal to voters suspicious of religious fundamentalism.

“My husband does a morning rock radio program here in Atlanta, and they talk about Ralph and my working for him all the time — meaning, here’s another mainstream media outlet portraying Ralph as human,” said Mrs. Baron, who describes her contributions to the Atlanta tabloid Sunday Paper as a “pro-marriage column.”

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