ATLANTA - For two decades, Ralph Reed made his mark as a political operator by helping other candidates win elections. Now he will learn if he can win one for himself.
While dodging fallout from a Washington lobbying scandal, the former organizer for the Christian Coalition and adviser to presidential campaigns is seeking to become Georgia's first Republican lieutenant governor since Reconstruction, a largely powerless post that could serve as a stepping stone to higher office.
The election is more than a year away, but already Mr. Reed is scooping up campaign dollars and working to build a grass-roots team - tasks at which he excels.
To some, the big question is whether he can put to rest questions about the antigambling beliefs he espoused as executive director of the Christian Coalition, when he called gambling "a cancer on the American body politic," and his subsequent work as a political consultant in which he received money allegedly tied to gambling interests.
The Georgia-based firm Mr. Reed started after leaving the Christian Coalition was hired between 1999 and 2002 to build public support for closing an Indian casino in Texas and to fight a proposed state lottery in Alabama. The casino was shuttered; the lottery was defeated.
Now there are reports that Mr. Reed's work - arranged by a longtime lobbyist friend and a public relations specialist under investigation in Washington for defrauding Indian clients - was secretly funded by gambling interests seeking to stifle competition.
Mr. Reed says he was assured the money did not come from gambling, and he is cooperating with the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
The consensus so far among Republican leaders and political analysts is that nothing yet has caused Mr. Reed any lasting harm. However, the investigation continues, and many are watching for further developments, including those at a national level.
"He's going to have a hard time explaining how he got mixed up in all that Indian gambling money," Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean said.
The Republican Party chairman, Ken Mehlman, countered that Democrats would rather raise ethics charges against Republicans than debate them on issues "because they don't want to discuss how to save Social Security or make America stronger in the world."
Mr. Reed, who has never held public office, faces state Sen. Casey Cagle, of Gainesville, a state lawmaker since 1994, for the Republican nomination. The winner of that primary, in July 2006, will be favored to win in November because of the state's tilt toward the GOP.
Mr. Cagle's campaign has said it's a stretch for people to believe Mr. Reed didn't know gambling money was helping fund his antigambling work in Texas and Alabama.
"Only an Enron accountant would believe Ralph's claim that he accepted millions in fees without bothering to learn where they came from," the campaign argued in a recent e-mail.
Democrats are ready to take the fight in a new direction for the general election. They are already arguing that Mr. Reed's effort to block the Alabama lottery - patterned after Georgia's highly popular lottery that funds education initiatives, including full-ride scholarships to state colleges for all above-average students - would make him an unworthy steward if elected lieutenant governor.
"He opposed the Alabama lottery and campaigned against the Alabama lottery, which was patterned after Georgia's. I don't see how we can trust him not to go after this one," Georgia Democratic Party chairman Bobby Kahn said.
Mr. Reed said he supports the Georgia lottery.
"It's a settled issue, and I'm a strong supporter of the HOPE scholarship," he said, referring to Georgia's scholarship program.
He said his opposition to the Alabama plan was keyed to a lack of what he considered sufficient legislative oversight and the prospect of no-bid contracts for vendors.