Bush's Avenging Angel
Can Ralph Reed rally the Religious Right--and stop McCain in South Carolina?

Reeling from his drubbing in the New Hampshire primary, George W. Bush is calling out the shock troops to fend off the populist charge of Senator John McCain. For Bush, it could come down to a make-or-break stand in South Carolina's primary on Feb. 19. And no one will be more vital to his Southern survival strategy than Ralph Reed, the political consultant and former executive director of the Christian Coalition.

Reed isn't shy about praising the Lord--or passing the ammunition. Despite his choirboy looks and unfailing politeness, the 38-year-old Reed is a canny political operative with a zest for partisan combat. His mission is clear: To help save Bush's hide, he must convince religious conservatives that George W.'s ''compassionate conservatism'' is preferable to McCain's Reaganesque appeal. Reed, who two weeks ago predicted victory in South Carolina, is more cautious now. ''We're in a very competitive race. If Governor Bush was considered the front-runner before, that label doesn't apply to us anymore,'' he says.

For Reed, first drawn to politics in Georgia as a volunteer for a Senate candidate swept to victory in the Reagan landslide of 1980, the showdown in South Carolina is a coming-out of sorts. In the 30 months since he left his Christian Coalition job, he has toiled in relative obscurity in an Atlanta suburb, compiling a mixed record as a GOP campaign consultant. Now, says one longtime ally, ''this is Ralph's chance to prove that he's the guy who can deliver.''

Using his impressive Rolodex and a massive mailing list of religious conservatives that he assembled as Pat Robertson's right-hand man, Reed is building bridges to Christian groups, rounding up endorsements from prominent ministers, and designing direct-mail and marketing appeals. His firm, Century Strategies, has received $186,109 from the Bush campaign thus far, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

TRICKY PROBLEM. South Carolina's conservative Christians accounted for 42% of the primary vote in 1996, and Bush needs to attract born-again voters to offset McCain's strength among independents, moderates, and the state's 400,000 veterans. But how can Bush differentiate himself from a rival who has a similar position on abortion? Both Bush and McCain oppose the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision, but they favor legal abortions in the cases of rape and incest, and they oppose anti-abortion litmus tests for federal judges and Vice-Presidential nominees. In addition, both men would ban late-term abortions.

Bush's camp thinks it can stake out the right flank on issues including fetal-tissue research and the GOP's platform plank on abortion. Reed believes McCain committed a major blunder when he pledged to water down the party's 1992 pledge to ban all abortions--with no exceptions--and require judicial picks to back this absolutist stance.

McCain's attempt to broaden his appeal by pledging to change the platform ''will cause him big trouble,'' Reed predicts. What's more, former South Carolina Governor David M. Beasley, a Bush backer, asserts that McCain will be hurt by past congressional votes for bills that would allow fetal-tissue medical research. ''Social conservatives are fired up against him,'' says Beasley.

McCain could be helped most by campaign overkill from the breathless Bushies. A relentlessly negative assault on McCain could backfire among independents and Democrats--who are allowed to cast GOP ballots in the state's wide-open primary. ''They've got a very tricky problem,'' says Rice University political scientist Earl Black. ''Clearly, Bush is going to rely on the Religious Right, but he needs a lot more than that to win in South Carolina. They run a risk of overdoing the ideology.''

Some independent GOP analysts wonder whether Reed can successfully mount a strategy that runs to the right and center simultaneously--a trick maverick McCain pulled off in New Hampshire. Skeptics point to Reed's work in the unsuccessful 1998 South Carolina congressional race of State Senator Michael L. Fair, a hard-line conservative who lost the GOP primary to now-Representative Jim DeMint of Greenville. ''I've never been terribly impressed with Reed's micromanagement,'' says Furman University political scientist James L. Guth, an expert on the Religious Right. ''In my estimation, he misjudged a number of things. He's a lot better at grand strategy.''

Another challenge for Reed will be revving up a Christian Right that has steadily lost momentum since it peaked with the 1994 congressional elections. Among the movement's woes: a rift between activists who demand ideological purity and pragmatists, such as Reed, who are willing to compromise to gain victory at the polls. Reed's old Christian Coalition is viewed by many as too accommodating to the party Establishment. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's extramarital affair has soured some conservatives on pols who preach ''family values'' but live la vida loca.

Still, Reed seems to have done a solid job thus far of marketing Bush to the Religious Right. His aggressive outreach to Christian leaders helped Bush freeze out social conservative rivals such as Dan Quayle and Gary Bauer. The remaining social conservatives, Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes, barely register on the radar screen in South Carolina.

If Reed succeeds in his current mission, he won't be able to relax for long. After South Carolina, the campaign heads South for other contests where religious conservatives will have to be rallied. If Reed rises to the challenge, the cherubic-looking pol with a flair for hardball won't just be winning professional vindication. He just might be heading for a bigger strategic role with a Bush team that needs all the street fighters it can get.

By Richard S. Dunham, with Lee Walczak, in Washington

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