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To Reed, it sometimes appeared, Christian voters were pawns in a game of power swapping. The Journal-Constitution reported that the man who had once condemned China for its one-child policy and its persecution of Christians had created a "grass-roots" Christian group to lobby for freer trade with the superpower--an effort quietly financed by major U.S. corporations like Boeing that were the Georgian's true clients. The profits Reed collected from such dealings were not, by any indication, the wages of illegal behavior. But to some they were the wages of sin. "He got nailed for being a phony," says a fellow G.O.P. operative in Washington, with more than a little schadenfreude.
In Reed's defeat, Democrats see reason to hope that their message about the G.O.P.'s "culture of corruption" is helping them toward their goal of taking back Congress in November. But that's wishful thinking. With the exception of those few candidates tied directly to Abramoff--Representative Bob Ney in Ohio and Senator Conrad Burns in Montana--it's unlikely that many Republicans will lose their seats over an issue Americans rank low on their list of concerns. If corruption were driving voters to the polls, Democrats should have won--or at least performed better in--the special election to fill the California House seat vacated by Duke Cunningham, the Republican jailed for taking bribes. But the Republican candidate won by 5 percentage points.
Matt Towery, a former aide to Newt Gingrich who is now an independent pollster and commentator, sees reasons for the G.O.P. to be worried that have nothing to do with Abramoff. "The party has misjudged the public's mood. Between the flag and gay marriage, we're running a faith and family-values campaign in a year when the public wants to deal with immigration, tax reform and energy costs," Towery says. But Cagle was nearly identical to Reed on the issues. Both presented themselves as religious conservatives, and both were endorsed by Georgia Right to Life. The problem for Reed was that the Abramoff scandal simply showed him less as a Christian leader who, with tie flying and fists clenched, once led a march of young conservatives through Washington to protest the Soviet downing of a Korean airliner and more as an operative with a taste for playing rough and cashing in. He was still the Navy brat, scrawny and smart, that his mother described to PEOPLE magazine in 1995: "[Ralph] was a wheeler-dealer," she said. "He always wanted to have the upper hand."
It was a reputation he only halfheartedly tried to knock down. He reveled in the dichotomy of talking about using guerrilla tactics--of garroting his opponents and leaving them to die, "raking in the dough" and blitzing the other side with negative ads--to advance pro-family candidates and agendas. Whenever he identified someone who understood the dark side of politics, Reed would say approvingly, "He gets the joke." It's what drew political reporters to Reed: we appreciated him in the same way we do James Carville and Harold Ickes on the Democratic side, or Lee Atwater and the reigning master, Karl Rove, on the Republican side. They're crass, sometimes ruthless and occasionally willing to stretch or even break a principle in order to win. Their redeeming quality is that most of them know they don't have what it takes to be the candidates themselves. And that might have been Reed's mistake.