ATHENS, Ga. -- Nine months from the start of the 2012 primaries, Republican political strategist Ralph Reed says it's a tossup whether President Obama will win a second term
"I believe this will be a hard-fought, bitterly contested, extremely close election," Reed said.
The former head of the Christian Coalition, who founded the Faith and Freedom Alliance in 2009 after an influence-peddling scandal and a failed run for lieutenant governor, laid out a road map to win back the White House while speaking Thursday to University of Georgia College Republicans.
If people are working and Obama's approval rating is above 50 percent next year, he'll be tough to beat, Reed said. And even if Obama's popularity drops and the economy stagnates, the Republican nominee will still be up against the best-organized and best-funded campaign ever, he said.
Obama "built the largest, the most effective and the most lethally disciplined grassroots organization in the history of American politics," he said.
Reed said he expects the Obama campaign to spend $1 billion on re-election and outside groups to kick in almost $1 billion more, the most expensive campaign in history.
The electorate in 2012 will also more closely resemble 2008 than 2010, with high minority and youth turnout, as opposed to the seniors, evangelical Christians and conservatives who carried the GOP to victory the past two years, Reed said.
The key, as with any election, will be to find Republican-leaning voters and make sure they show up at the polls, said Reed, who cut his teeth working on the Reagan campaign in 1980 while a student at UGA.
The winning strategy hasn't changed since, even in the era of Facebook and YouTube, new media that the Obama campaign took advantage of in 2008. Elections are still all about finding your supporters and turning them out, Reed said.
"The Internet was simply a means to an end" for Obama, he said. "The end was to bring in millions of volunteers and donors."
The Republican nominee must be someone who can build a door-to-door ground campaign, raise a lot of money and go toe-to-toe with Obama in debates - something Reed said 2008 nominee Sen. John McCain couldn't do.
That candidate could be former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who announced Thursday in Atlanta that he is forming a committee to explore a run for the presidency. Gingrich will have to move quickly to get organized and line up endorsements in early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina, Reed said.
"I like Newt's chances," he said. "He's clearly a top-tier candidate."