ATLANTA – For two decades, Ralph Reed (search) made his mark as a squeaky-clean political operator and a driving force behind the Christian right. Now he's trying to get himself into elected office amid allegations he raked in money from the same gambling interests he once called "a cancer on the American body politic."
The former organizer for the Christian Coalition and adviser to presidential campaigns is seeking to become Georgia's first Republican lieutenant governor since Reconstruction, a largely powerless post that could serve as a stepping stone to higher office.
The election is still more than a year away, with incumbent Democrat Mark Taylor (search) vacating the seat to run for governor, but already Reed is raising money and assembling a team.
To some, the big question facing Reed is whether there is a conflict between the antigambling beliefs he espoused as executive director of the Christian Coalition and the money he collected later as a political consultant.
The firm Reed started after leaving the Christian Coalition was hired in 1999-02 to build public support for closing an Indian casino in Texas and to fight a proposed state lottery in Alabama. The casino was shuttered; the lottery was defeated.
Now news reports say Reed's work - arranged by longtime lobbyist friend and public relations specialist Jack Abramoff (search), who is under investigation in Washington for allegedly defrauding Indian tribe clients - was secretly funded by gambling interests seeking to stifle competition.
Reed says he was assured the money did not come from gambling.
"He's going to have a hard time explaining how he got mixed up in all that Indian gambling money," Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean told The Associated Press.
One former Republican state legislator, Bob Irvin, has called on Reed to withdraw from the race, arguing in an op-ed piece for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Reed is too divisive and will drive thousands of Republicans into the Democratic column if he wins the nomination.
Others note that Reed was chairman of the Georgia Republican Party in 2002-03, when the party pulled off upset victories to elect the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Sonny Perdue.
"One thing the media doesn't understand is, we have worked with him for many, many years and we trust him," said Kay Godwin, a Republican activist in the southeast Georgia town of Blackshear.
Reed faces a lone opponent for the Republican nomination - state Sen. Casey Cagle of Gainesville. The winner of the Republican primary in July 2006 will be favored to win in November because of the state's recent tilt toward the GOP.
Cagle's campaign has said it's a stretch for people to believe Reed didn't know gambling money was helping fund his antigambling work in Texas and Alabama.
"Only an Enron accountant would believe Ralph's claim that he accepted millions in fees without bothering to learn where they came from," his campaign argued in a recent e-mail.
In the Texas case, where Reed helped rally support for closing a casino operated by the Tigua tribe, investigators in Washington have been told the effort was secretly funded with money from rival Indian casinos. Reed's fight against the lottery in Alabama was funded in part with money from a Choctaw band in Mississippi, which has casino interests.
Reed does not dispute receiving money from the Choctaw band, but says he's been assured it came from the tribe's other business interests, not from gambling. In the Texas effort, Reed says he was a subcontractor and "did not know who the client of the firm was and did not find out until some years later."
When asked why he is running for a state post that pays considerably less than what he has made as a consultant, Reed responds: "I want to restore the office to effectiveness, and I believe I can make it a platform for bold, conservative reform."
Others believe there is another reason.
Marshall Wittmann, who worked with Reed at the Christian Coalition but now works for the Democratic Leadership Council, thinks Reed wants to be president.
"He knew he couldn't go from the Christian Coalition, so he became a political consultant, then Georgia GOP chairman, then coordinator for the Bush campaign. The next logical step is to win a political office. This is what's available, but it's clearly a stepping stone to higher office," Wittmann said.