Reed to refashion coalition

Conservative Christians appear ready for 21st century approach.

One of the most controversial and successful figures of late 20th century politics wants to expand his brand to the 21st.

Ralph Reed believes conservative voters of faith need a Christian Coalition 2.0.

And the man once dubbed the "right hand of God" by Time magazine is returning to the arena where he had his greatest success to try and make it so.

"This is not going to be your daddy's Christian Coalition," Reed said in an interview to describe his new venture, the Faith and Freedom Coalition. "It has to be younger, hipper, less strident, more inclusive and it has to harness the 21st century that will enable us to win in the future."

If so, perhaps this really will be a new start. After all, when Reed ran the original Christian Coalition from 1989 to 1997, he famously warned enemies they wouldn't know what hit them "until you're in a body bag."

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But, it's been a decade since Reed left that stage, and he has suffered embarrassments and defeats the past few years.

Now, Reed wants back in. And, judging from the 2008 national elections, Republicans could use the help. But questions remain: Do Republicans need or want Reed's new group? And can Reed still deliver it if they do?

Reed says the answer to the first question is in the 2008 election results. The GOP was out-hustled, out-spent and out-organized in key states, Reed said. The party needs what he delivered in the 1990s, but with a 21st century update.

"Even though I've been doing other things, this is kind of like Steve Jobs returning to Apple," Reed said.

When Jobs left the company he founded, Apple foundered. After he returned, Apple grew into an iconic firm that has captured the public's attention in ways that all other tech firms wish to emulate.

"You have to reinvent it," Reed said. "It's the political analogue to the iPod and the iPhone. It would be cool. It would be transformative. It would transform our politics and bring younger people to our ranks. All of those are critical imperatives."

And while there are myriad other faith- or family- or freedom-touting organizations, such as Focus on the Family or the original Christian Coalition, Reed does not believe there is one that has captured the national mode of religious conservatives quite like Coalition did in the 1990s.

Back then, Reed was the golden boy of Republican politics and was 33 when Time magazine put him on the cover. Under his leadership, the Christian Coalition became a pre-eminent force in American politics. It —- and he —- were admired and feared. Reed could mobilize vast sums of voters.

But Reed left the organization in 1997 as the Federal Election Commission was investigating whether it violated campaign finance rules. By 1999, the IRS had revoked the Coalition's tax-exempt status for taking partisan stands in elections. Reed, meanwhile, went on to work on George W. Bush's presidential campaigns and served as chairman of the Georgia GOP.

Ultimately, he tried to cross the divide between strategist and candidate. He was in the middle of the 2006 Republican primary campaign for lieutenant governor when his longtime friend Jack Abramoff was convicted in a massive lobbying scandal. As Abramoff's career circled the drain, Reed was linked to a plot to defraud Indian tribes fighting over casino rights.

Reed's firm received more than $4 million to rally Christian voters against a casino that competed with Abramoff's Indian clients. Reed has said Abramoff deceived him. He was hired, Reed said, to mobilize opposition to casino expansion and was assured his payments would not come from gambling revenue.

Abramoff ended up in prison. Reed was never accused of wrongdoing, and wasn't even subpoenaed by the Senate committee investigating Abramoff. Still, the fallout wounded his campaign for lieutenant governor and damaged his reputation.

In the years since, Reed has mounted a low-profile comeback. He nurtured his consulting firm, wrote a novel and became a cable news commentator.

Has the taint of scandal hurt Reed's new organization before it even gets fully under way?

"There is a very real potential that this could be about him, and that could be problematic," said John Green, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "If he wants to avoid that, he probably has some work to do."

Reed's links to Abramoff, as well as other perceived sins, caused heartburn among many evangelical Christians. Whether those evangelicals forgive is key, Green said.

"That certainly diminished his popularity among some conservative Christians," Green said. "How serious a liability that will be remains to be seen."

Atlanta public relations executive Mark DeMoss, whose firm consults faith-based organizations, said he believes Reed's instincts are correct.

"The bottom line is we [Republicans] need everything," said DeMoss, who until recently had office space in the same building as Reed's firm. "Better technology, better organization skills, better messaging, better candidates, better leadership. Ralph is addressing a good part of it, and I believe he'll probably do good things with it."

Former critics on the left and the right say Reed should not be counted out.

Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a Boston firm that tracks right-wing organizations, is blunt when asked about Reed's past.

"I think what he's done is, frankly, despicable," Berlet said. "Do I think he plays by the rules? No."

But Berlet also doubts whether Reed's past transgressions will hamper his new effort. "He's very good," Berlet said. "He's a skillful organizer. He was a real professional."

Maurice Atkinson, a Macon Republican and evangelical Christian, accused Reed in the past of betraying the cause. Reed, Atkinson said, "seemed to have gotten himself mired with that Abramoff fellow and was just making money from both sides, basically, and that's all it was."

But, with the threat that Atkinson and others see from President Barack Obama's administration, Reed's brand of politics is needed, he said.

"I've been a critic of Ralph, but people like that need to get involved in the fight to put a halt to this," Atkinson said. "For me, I say go for it."

Still, Reed said, this is not about him. And it's not a comeback or a return to prominence.

"I don't think it signifies anything for me," Reed said. "I've become an elder statesman at 48, but I'm still doing what I was doing at 20."

Reed said he's less interested in being "the face of the movement," and more in finding and training the next generation of conservative leaders, volunteers and activists.

In fact, the Faith and Freedom Coalition was not, he said, his idea. After John McCain was beaten in 2008, Reed said, he started getting phone calls from close friends, "saying we really haven't had anything that in an effective, focused way was energizing and turning out to the polls in large numbers conservatives and people of faith since you left."

The proof was in the data, Reed said.

"In terms of ground game and air cover in the top five to eight battleground states, McCain was outspent and out-mobilized on field staff and volunteer level from a low of 3-to-1 to a high of 9-to-1," Reed said.

Still, Reed said, he wasn't terribly interested.

"That was not on my list of things to do," he said. "I'd been there, done that, got the T-shirt."

But the more he thought about it, the more he agreed that "something needed to be done."

Where the old Christian Coalition's greatest asset was arguably the millions of voter guides handed out in churches across the country, the new Coalition will use the Internet as its information dissemination tool.

Attracting younger voters and activists, Reed knows, takes a robust Web-based campaign that uses the new gadgets and social networks that dominate young people's lives.

But it also takes a hook, a rallying cry, a reason for being. In the 1990s, the Christian Coalition had that and more in the persona and presidency of Bill Clinton.

While Obama has not offered the same wedge that Clinton did —- no sex scandals, for example —- Reed is confident the lightning rod is there.

"This is the most far-reaching and extremist agenda being advanced across multiple fronts in a smaller amount of time than I've seen in my career," Reed said.

Others, however, are not so sure. Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia, has written extensively on the convergence of religion and politics. He said the absence of a personality like Clinton's could be a problem.

"The demonizing potential doesn't exist today," Rozell said. "Dislike of Obama is more ideological rather than personal."

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