The Firewall Next Time

Harry Dent assures me that George W. Bush is going to win big in South Carolina on February 19. "He's Mr. Handsome," the South Carolinian recently told me, "got a gorgeous wife, good family. And he believes in Jesus Christ. That's pretty strong down here." Dent should know. A longtime adviser to the state's nonagenarian Senator Strom Thurmond and a storied figure in the history of the post-civil rights era South and the Republican Party, Dent is widely credited as the principal architect of Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy.

If Republicans can't figure out that George W. Bush is their man, Dent said, "they might as well go back into the hills again."

Maybe so. But Bush isn't taking any chances. In addition to lining up most of the state's Republican establishment behind his campaign, Bush has also retained the services of Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition. In the past three presidential cycles, the South Carolina primary has become the proverbial "firewall" where GOP front-runners go to shut down the candidacies of insurgents who catch fire in Iowa and New Hampshire. Most believe that Reed was an important part of that firewall formula in 1992 and 1996, a feat that earned him a reputation as a fixer who could corral Christian conservative voters for mainstream Republican candidates.

With John McCain surging in New Hampshire, attention has returned to South Carolina, and Reed has been doing his part, plying television audiences and political reporters with assurances about Bush's strength in the state. A slew of commentators, including syndicated columnist Mark Shields, National Review's Kate O'Beirne, and The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes, have recently either reported on or repeated Reed's claims that the state's numerous evangelical voters were solidly lined up behind Bush, through Reed's efforts. Barnes told readers that "the pastors at least, if not the members, of many large Baptist and charismatic churches are pro-Bush, having been recruited by Ralph Reed." And Barnes approvingly repeated Reed's assertion that no "significant evangelical leader" is supporting McCain.

Only a few weeks earlier, Reed tried to spin Barnes's boss, Weekly Standard publisher Bill Kristol, with a similar story. "We've identified 78,000 households [in South Carolina]," Kristol recalled Reed telling him. "We've got 36 pastors with churches and 3,000 members or more." Kristol was skeptical about whether Reed's firewall could withstand a McCain surge, but he was still impressed. "South Carolina is a primary state that they are treating like a caucus state," Kristol told NBC's Tim Russert in early December. "They are identifying every household in the state, finding out if they're for Bush, and if they say at this stage they're for Bush, they've got them on the list, ready to call them up the day before the election to turn them out. So it's a huge organizational effort." (For the record, Reed now disputes the substance of almost all of Kristol's recollection. Kristol stands by it, however, and Rich Galen, another Republican political strategist, has said that Reed made similar comments to him.)

Join the conversation!

Discuss this article in
Political Prospects,
part of The American Prospect's Online Forums.

But how deep does this organizational effort really go, and how big a role is Reed actually playing? There are a number of reasons to believe that Reed now lacks the influence he once had. By all accounts, Reed's power to corral voters for Bob Dole in 1996 depended heavily on his ability to work through the state Christian Coalition hierarchy, particularly through Chairwoman Roberta Combs. The problem is that most of the state leadership is now supporting Steve Forbes. That may not help Forbes, who's still locked into single digits with Alan Keyes. But it should hurt Reed's ability to rally the troops for Bush.

In-state observers also say much of the shine has come off Reed's reputa-tion in the past two years. One of Reed's South Carolina clients in the 1998 cycle, Jim White, came in a distant second in a four-way race. The other, Mike Fair, a candidate for Congress in the fourth district, was defeated in an open Republican primary he was originally favored to win. There is no shortage of second-guessing about Reed's role in the Fair race, much of it focusing on Reed's high fees and the allegedly indifferent attention he gave to the race. But more detached observers point to alternative explanations: Reed's unwillingness or inability to build out from Fair's base of committed Christian conservative voters and the polarizingeffect of Reed's own involvement in the race. "Ralph's immensely talented," says Elmer Rumminger, a Christian activist who is a friend of Fair's, "but he's a lightning rod as a campaign consultant. [Fair's opponent] used the Ralph Reed connection as a scare tactic, like you're voting for Pat Robertson. Nobody has any question about [Reed's] ability. But the previous association with the Christian Coalition works as a negative."

Given all the buzz about Reed's involvement in the South Carolina campaign, what's striking is how many Christian conservative activists don't even seem to realize Reed's involved in the race at all. When I asked Forbes backer Lois Eargle about Reed, she told me she hadn't even heard he was working for Bush. And Eargle is the chair of the Horry County Christian Coalition. "I know a lot of people in this state," she told me. "We talk. But no one has mentioned the fact that Reed was in." "I haven't seen him," another South Carolina Christian Coalition board member recently told me. "Ralph Reed is extremely adept at public relations. He's developed a strong relationship with the national media. But I haven't seen any reference to him in the state." If Reed were lining up so many voters for Bush, McCain backer Cyndi Mosteller insisted, "I'd have heard about it."

That perception is backed up by more disinterested observers like Lee Bandy, the political columnist for The State newspaper, who is widely considered to be the dean of South Carolina political reporters. "I don't know of anything [Reed's] doing in the state," he told me in late December. "He's been invisible." Bandy said he'd seen talk about Reed's work in the state on Washington-based political talk shows. But he hadn't seen any of it on the ground. "I don't know what [Reed's] been saying. But I don't sense a Ralph Reed presence in the state anywhere."

Has Reed's talent for spinning the press simply outpaced his ability or willingness to do actual political work on the ground? It appears so. But how did Reed manage to maintain such a reputation for political acumen in the first place when his own record as a political consultant has been so disappointing? After the November 1998 elections, Reed claimed a 50-percent success rate for his clients, but only by figuring in a number of unnamed clients, the identity of whom he said he was contractually obligated not to reveal. Just about every one of his publicly known clients who faced an even remotely competitive opponent went down to defeat, and most of these defeats followed a strikingly similar pattern. His candidates started out strong, with heavy pitches on social and moral issues (a tactic Reed heavily promoted), stumbled in the stretch, and finally resorted to viciously negative (and often race-baiting) tactics before losing big.

In several cases, Reed's candidates' slash-and-burn stunts became almost comical. Just before going down to a crushing defeat, Gary Hofmeister began running a 30-second ad that featured the face of his opponent, Indiana Congresswoman Julia Carson (who is black), melding into images of prison doors and hypodermic needles. Another client, Mitch Skandalakis (a candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia) reacted to his slide in the polls by playing what might be called the D.W. Griffith card, launching a series of withering attacks on the alleged incompetence of the predominantly black administration of the city of Atlanta. Skandalakis also aired an ad with an actor resembling his opponent Mark Taylor, clad in a tattered robe, shambling down a hospital hallway at the Ridgeview Institute, a psychiatric and drug treatment facility near Atlanta. Skandalakis eventually lost by a substantial margin--and Taylor's $1 million defamation lawsuit against him is now before a court-appointed mediator.

What's revealing about these tactics is less their sleaziness than their fecklessness. These moves were clumsy, impetuous, and terribly counterproductive. Reed is long on political grand strategy, but, in 1998 at least, he seemed painfully inexperienced with the nuts and bolts of running an actual campaign. "I don't think [Reed] had seen quite as much live ammo as he thought, especially at the sub-presidential level," said Alan Secrest, a Democratic political consultant who helped defeat three of Reed's 1998 clients, including Mitch Skandalakis and now-former Alabama Governor Fob James. "In 1998, when the context wasn't quite as strong a determinant, you had to rely on swiftness of foot tactically. But his work was just heavy-handed. There was a lot of clumsiness."

So why is Reed's reputation so seemingly unsinkable? Part of the reason is simple reportorial laziness. Too many credulous pundits buy the spin. But Reed also possesses an undeniable intelligence and an elegant persuasiveness as a political talker that both play a critical role. The oddity of Reed's character is the co-existence in the same person of such high-end political insight with such low-rent dirty tricks. The McCain campaign's only real concern about Reed is that he might end up hit-ting them with a last minute anti-McCain phone-bank blitz on issues ranging from abortion to gay rights, something akin to what Reed engineered, on Bob Dole's behalf, against Steve Forbes in 1996 in Iowa. (As Forbes found out then, brass-knuckle attacks can actually be quite effective if they are done below the radar, with phone calls to individual voters).

But if Reed is doing more talking than politicking, maybe that South Carolina firewall isn't as secure as some think. People in the McCain camp make the rather convincing argument that the past South Carolina firewalls, and Reed's role in constructing them, are a bit of a myth, since the front-runners' opponent in each race, Patrick J. Buchanan, never had any organization in the state. "There was no competition," in 1992 or 1996, insists one McCain adviser. "Dole's real opponent [in 1996] was Phil Gramm. But he never got to South Carolina. He was already out [of the race]. Gramm was really the only other candidate who had made an investment in the state. Buchanan ... had zero going into South Carolina."

Oddly enough, Reed now seems to agree with those Christian conservative activists who told me they didn't think Reed had much involvement in the South Carolina campaign after all. In a follow-up interview at the end of December, Reed told me he didn't have any particular involvement with the South Carolina primary or even close knowledge of developments in the race. "Obviously I'm familiar with the state," he said. "But I don't have any specific connection to the South Carolina campaign. My main work is with Austin." What about Forbes's support among the South Carolina leadership of the Christian Coalition? "I don't know the answer to that ... I wouldn't be tracking the individual support."

That sounded a lot different from what Reed told me when I first interviewed him a few weeks earlier. Is it possible that Reed is simply being repeatedly misunderstood and misrepresented? (Reed told me, for instance, that he didn't know where Fred Barnes got the idea that he had been recruit-ing South Carolina pastors for the Bush campaign.) Maybe. But a more likely explanation is that Reed just let his words get out ahead of events, and now he's having his own doubts about just how strong Bush really is in South Carolina.