In considering the collapse of Ralph Reed's political dreams, it's tempting to conjure up biblical parables about Jesus instructing his followers in humility by suggesting they go "sit in the lowest place"--or of pride going before a fall. Reed was the preternaturally boyish spear carrier for the religious right, the brash Evangelical who transformed the Christian Coalition into a populist power center, then helped usher Republicans into control of Congress and George W. Bush into the presidency. The next step was launching his own political career in his native Georgia: Reed would be elected Lieutenant Governor this November, then Governor four years hence. After that, his friends said, the White House would be within reach. The young man who at 33 graced TIME's cover in 1995 as "The Right Hand of God" might appear there again, perhaps a decade from now, taking the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Instead, there was Reed, just 45 but with crow's-feet carved gently into his temples, offering a meager group of supporters a curt concession speech in a hotel ballroom in Buckhead last week. He had lost the primary to a little-known state senator named Casey Cagle in a 12-point landslide, Reed's once invincible lead in the polls and fund raising eroded by a year of steady revelations about his ties to the convicted former G.O.P. superlobbyist Jack Abramoff. In the political vernacular that Reed loves to employ, he was waxed.
In the week before the primary, as his campaign's internal polls showed the race a dead heat and a published survey gave him a 4-point lead, Reed was assuring friends he would pull out a victory by doing what he had always done better than anyone else: turn out the vote by pinpointing with extreme efficiency the religious conservatives. "I do guerrilla warfare," Reed once boasted to a reporter, describing how he ambushed his enemies as a political operative. "I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag." So imagine everyone's surprise, in Washington and Atlanta, when the results came in on primary night and suddenly it was Reed's body that was in the bag.
"I'm proud of the campaign we ran," Reed, weary but ever positive, told TIME. "I'm glad we did it." He didn't want to talk about why he lost, but those who know him say he blames the media--particularly the Atlanta Journal-Constitution--for their extensive coverage of his business ties to Abramoff, his friend from their days running the College Republicans in the early 1980s. For a high-profile religious conservative like Reed, the stories of being paid millions by one Indian tribe to run a religious-based antigambling campaign to prevent another tribe from opening a rival casino made him look like something worse than a criminal--a hypocrite. He had once called gambling a "cancer" on the body politic. And the e-mails to Abramoff didn't help, especially those that seemed to suggest that the man who had deplored in print Washington's system of "honest graft" was eager to be part of it. "I need to start humping in corporate accounts!" he wrote Abramoff a few days after the 1998 election.