Ralph Reed, candidate for lieutenant governor, had just finished his opening statement to the Dawson County Republican Party when retired pulp paper executive Gary Pichon sprang from his seat with a question that cut to the chase:
"Did you accept any gifts, commissions or other payments of any kind from Mr. Abramoff, and are you likely to be a party in the unfolding investigation?"
Silence enveloped the 60 or so Republicans in the auditorium, and Reed's cheerful manner turned tense. "No," he replied. "No to all these."
As everyone knew, Pichon was referring to Jack Abramoff, whose outsize Washington lobbying scandal has reached down to Georgia. Abramoff and Reed -- the former executive director of the Christian Coalition -- have been friends for 25 years, and until recently it had been a mutually profitable association. Now it is proving highly inconvenient for Reed, and threatens to stall a career that has been emblematic of the modern GOP.
Dent in a cultivated image
Reed served as executive director of the College Republicans from 1983 to 1985 and led a revival of the Christian right in the 1990s. He founded a grass-roots lobbying firm in 1997, bringing in millions of dollars in fees, chaired the Georgia Republican Party in 2002 when the GOP took over the state, and served as Southeast director of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign.
At age 44, he still has the choirboy looks that have been noted in dozens of profiles over the past 20 years. But the first major dent in Reed's carefully cultivated image came with the disclosure in the summer of 2004 that his public relations and lobbying companies had received at least $4.2 million from Abramoff to mobilize Christian voters to fight Indian casinos competing with Abramoff's casino clients.
Similarly damaging has been a torrent of e-mails revealed during the investigation that shows a side of Reed that some former supporters say cannot be reconciled with his professed Christian values.
"After reading the e-mail, it became pretty obvious he was putting money before God," said Phil Dacosta, a Georgia Christian Coalition member who had initially backed Reed. "We are righteously casting him out."
Among those e-mails was one from Reed to Abramoff in late 1998: "I need to start humping in corporate accounts! . . . I'm counting on you to help me with some contacts." Within months, Abramoff hired him to lobby on behalf of the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, who were seeking to prevent competitors from setting up facilities in nearby Alabama.
In 1999, Reed e-mailed Abramoff after submitting a bill for $120,000 and warning that he would need as much as $300,000 more: "We are opening the bomb bays and holding nothing back."
In 2004, when the casino payments to Reed were disclosed, Reed issued a statement declaring "no direct knowledge of their [Abramoff's law firm's] clients or interests." In 2005, however, Senate investigators released a 1999 e-mail from Abramoff to Reed explicitly citing the client: "It would be really helpful if you could get me invoices [for services performed] as soon as possible so I can get Choctaw to get us checks ASAP."
'He is a bad version of us!'
One of the most damaging e-mails was sent by Abramoff to partner Michael Scanlon, complaining about Reed's billing practices and expenditure claims: "He is a bad version of us! No more money for him." Scanlon and Abramoff have pleaded guilty to defrauding clients.
Reed's records have been subpoenaed by federal prosecutors, and neither he nor his staff will discuss whether Reed has been interviewed or has been called as a witness to grand jury proceedings. No evidence has emerged that he is a target in the federal inquiry.
The controversy has confronted Reed with a fierce headwind here. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has published 48 articles and editorials on the Reed-Abramoff connection. The paper's main circulation area includes the suburban and exurban areas surrounding Atlanta, which provide more than half the votes cast in statewide Republican primaries.
Although polling this many months before an election is not as reliable as surveys closer to November, a recent Zogby poll performed for the paper had troubling findings for Reed: When voters were asked to pick between "Republican Ralph Reed" and "a Democrat," the generic Democrat won 36 percent to 33 percent, although the state leans strongly Republican. When voters were asked to pick between "Republican Casey Cagle," a state senator running against Reed for the GOP nomination, and "a Democrat," Cagle won, 35 percent to 30 percent.
Similarly, Reed raised an impressive $1.4 million in the first six months of 2005, before local coverage of the Abramoff scandal had heated up; his total for the second half of 2005 dropped to $404,258, below Cagle's $667,692. Overall, Reed retains an advantage in cash on hand.
The problem vexing the Reed campaign is that even if the federal investigation clears him of wrongdoing, his status is likely to remain uncertain at least through the July 18 primary.
In political limbo
Without the prospect of a quick resolution of his role in the Abramoff controversy, Reed is in a political limbo -- hardly a selling point for Republicans eager to keep their four-year-old hold on state government.
Whit Ayres, one of the state's best-known Republican consultants and pollsters, said the best way to determine Reed's political future would be to "ask Jack Abramoff. Only [the former lobbyist] and some prosecutors know what he has to say about Reed." Pichon, the Dawson County Republican, said: "If Reed ends up winning the primary, we might be at the point where we blow our brains out over that issue."
Random interviews on Main Street in heavily Republican Alpharetta -- a rapidly growing town of 37,850 on the far northern suburbs of Atlanta -- suggested that even many people who follow politics casually are aware of the linkage between Reed and Abramoff.
"Ralph Reed? He's a politician," said David Loudenflager, a Republican who retired after working 32 years for the Arrow Shirt Company. "He was involved with Jack Abramoff and the Indians and all those."
Loudenflager does not like the Democratic Party -- "they give away everything" -- but he puts no stock in the Christian Coalition: "All these people running around telling you how good they are, and how right they are. You better be careful and hold on to your wallet."
Todd Guy, owner of Trader Golf, said succinctly in response to an inquiry: "Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition? My God! Abramoff."
After Reed first entered national politics as executive director of the Christian Coalition, he described to the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot his tactics in mobilizing Christian conservatives to sway elections: "I want to be invisible. I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag. You don't know until election night."
When it came to himself, however, Reed hardly worked at staying invisible. He was a familiar figure and a ready quote for political journalists. Republicans running for offices high and low sought his blessing. He made the cover of Time on May 15, 1995, in a stark black-and-white photo with the headline "The Right Hand Of God."
These days, Reed rarely grants interviews, and he declined a request to speak for this article. And Georgia Republicans are openly wondering whether Reed is a blessing or a curse. On Friday, the Journal-Constitution prominently displayed a story headlined: "Supporters ask, is Reed worth the gamble? Lobbying, casino stories take a toll."
Over time, as new disclosures about his dealings with Abramoff have emerged, Reed has subtly moderated his response to inquiries. At the Dawson County GOP meeting, he told activists, "I was building my small business in 1999 when I was approached by a friend of almost 20 years from one of the most respected and prestigious law firms in the nation," without naming Abramoff.
Of the work he did for Abramoff's firm, Reed said, "I agreed to do so having been assured that none of the funds used to pay my firm were derived from gambling activities."
Reed said he helped close an illegal casino in Texas and prevented casinos from coming to Alabama. "Many marriages and lives were saved" and "many children were spared the consequences of gambling because of the work I did."
But, he added, "if I had known then what I know now, I would not have done that work."
Researcher Zachary Goldfarb contributed to this report.