Ralph Reed's New Role
By Susan Schmidt
Eighteen months ago, the political career of Christian right golden boy Ralph Reed came crashing down, a casualty of his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. This week, Reed has found a new calling. He appeared on CNN during its New Hampshire primary coverage and again last night, labeled as a "GOP political analyst."
Reed sounded none too bullish about John McCain's prospects going forward despite his big New Hampshire win. That's perhaps not surprising, given the long history between the two.
McCain, as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, launched an investigation of Abramoff's tribal lobbying that turned up a mountain of e-mails, including some between Reed and Abramoff.
The e-mails revealed Abramoff's corrupt dealings with politicians, as well as conservative religious and advocacy groups. Reed often participated in Abramoff's business schemes, telling him in a 1998 e-mail after stepping down as head of the Christian Coalition: "I need to start humping in corporate accounts!"
E-mails and testimony before McCain's panel showed that Reed, who once branded gambling a "cancer" on society, reaped millions of dollars in tribal casino proceeds that Abramoff secretly routed to him through various non-profit front groups. Abramoff, a lobbyist for the tribes, paid Reed to whip up "grassroots" Christian opposition to prevent rival tribes from opening casinos.
Abramoff sometimes routed his money to Reed through a group called Americans for Tax Reform, run by conservative anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. Norquist lately has been attacking McCain's record on taxes, placing robo calls to voters in New Hampshire.
Reed's much-publicized role in the Abramoff scandal cost him the 2006 Republican primary for Georgia lieutenant governor--the first rung on what was widely expected to be a climb into national politics.
Now Reed's on the sidelines, handicapping McCain's prospects.
"Can he go on from here?" CNN host Anderson Cooper asked Reed on Tuesday. "Does he have the organization in Michigan and South Carolina?"
"I think the jury is out on that," said Reed, explaining that McCain would encounter more conservative voters and fewer independents in the upcoming South Carolina primary. "This is the same challenge that he had with George W. Bush eight years ago," said Reed. "That's where it gets tough for him."
Reed would know. It was in South Carolina that he and other Christian conservatives succeeded in mounting a furious effort on behalf of George W. Bush eight years ago to defeat McCain, then, as now, coming off a big win in the New Hampshire primary.
"Last night was the first time we've seen or heard Ralph Reed since the campaign began," said South Carolina McCain strategist Trey Walker.
Eight years ago, McCain's campaign was undone by an anonymous and scurrilous campaign in South Carolina, conducted through leaflets, e-mail, and telephone push polls, that spread a false rumors about McCain and his family. Among the most damaging to the candidate was the claim that one of his children, adopted from Bangladesh, was an illegitimate child he fathered with a black woman. That e-mail claim was subsequently traced back to a professor at Bob Jones University.
Who exactly was behind the 2000 smear? "That's the $64,000 question. We spent a lot of time trying to figure that out," said Walker. This week, the McCain campaign in South Carolina announced it has created a truth squad there "to counter any negative or misleading attacks" targeted at McCain.
A CNN spokeswoman said Reed was asked to appear on the network's primary coverage because he is a "well-known expert on the evangelical vote," and that he was not paid for the appearance.
Reed did not return a call seeking comment on his status as a political commentator. In 2006, Rudy Giuliani appeared as a headliner at an Atlanta fundraiser for Reed, but Reed's office said yesterday that he is not affiliated with any of the presidential campaigns.
Reed wasn't the only Abramoff scandal casualty seeking to cast doubts on McCain's prospects after the New Hampshire vote. Former House majority leader Tom DeLay, who left Congress and is still under investigation by the Justice Department in connection with the Abramoff probe, predicted to MSNBC's Chris Matthews that McCain won't fare well with conservatives in the South.
New Hampshire, he said, was "a blip, an aberration in the nominating process of the Republican Party."
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