Originally created 06/12/06

Lieutenant governor race turns into trust slugfest



ATLANTA - The Internet cartoon begins with former President Clinton entering from the right, telling viewers, "This is your lucky day."

The fake commercial then continues to unveil former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed's "greatest hits," including Take the Money and Run, an allusion to a gambling controversy that has surrounded Mr. Reed's bid for lieutenant governor.

A link to the site was e-mailed to journalists by a staffer for Mr. Reed's opponent in the GOP primary, Sen. Casey Cagle, R-Chestnut Mountain.

That is pretty much how it has gone in the highly anticipated and closely watched GOP primary for a job that has the main requirement of making sure the state Senate runs smoothly.

While almost any election contest will feature some sparring over character, the GOP campaign for lieutenant governor seems to be turning into a referendum on the trustworthiness of the two contenders.

"Voters want candidates they can trust," said Mike Digby, a political science professor at Georgia College and State University. But, he said, issues are also important - and the two become linked in many people's minds.

"Voters tend to trust politicians whose positions they like," Mr. Digby said.

The already muddy race between Mr. Reed and Mr. Cagle is not the only one bringing up trust issues. Up and down the ballot, candidates are going after their primary opponents on questions of consistency and honesty.

Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a candidate for governor this year, and the state GOP have accused Secretary of State Cathy Cox of not responding to open-records requests or "flip-flopping" on a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Ms. Cox is Mr. Taylor's main opponent for the Democratic nomination to take on Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue in the fall.

Meanwhile, Ms. Cox's camp has spread media reports questioning how Mr. Taylor got a loan that has helped bankroll his candidacy.

Sen. Bill Stephens and Fulton County Commission Chairwoman Karen Handel, the two major GOP candidates for secretary of state, have gone to great lengths to paint the other as a shaky Republican, or a recent entrant to the party.

Ms. Handel's campaign has distributed pictures of a smiling Mr. Stephens standing next to someone holding a 1992 "Clinton-Gore" campaign sign; Mr. Stephens' campaign has highlighted what it says are Ms. Handel's shifting statements on gay rights.

Mr. Digby said personality issues are more likely to take center stage in contests where there aren't major differences on policy - such as party primaries.

"Oftentimes, the only things that they can find will be issues of personality and honesty and trust," Mr. Digby said.

And so Mr. Cagle and Mr. Reed have gone pounding away at each other, with Mr. Cagle repeatedly bringing up Mr. Reed's ties to disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

Mr. Cagle has highlighted allegations that Mr. Reed used his ties to Christian conservatives to help Mr. Abramoff's clientele, which included gambling interests.

"Essentially, what he's done in a lot of his corporate work ... is took the social conservatives that he's worked with in the past and rented them out to corporations without their knowledge," said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for Mr. Cagle.

Mr. Reed has responded by, at various times, questioning why Mr. Cagle was absent for a vote on eminent domain; saying Mr. Cagle was responsible for the death of legislation in 2004 that would have limited medical malpractice lawsuits (it later passed); and trumpeting Mr. Cagle's votes on financial legislation while being chairman or director of a bank.

"We expect the record of Sen. Cagle to be a big issue in this race," said Jared Thomas, Mr. Reed's campaign manager. "This is an example of a politician who says one thing and does another."

Mr. Alexander said Mr. Reed is simply trying to revive his own flagging campaign by trying to make Mr. Cagle look worse than the alternative.

"We don't think that's a plausible argument," Mr. Alexander said.

But Mr. Thomas pointed out that Mr. Cagle's campaign has also gone negative, pointing to the "greatest hits" Internet site and a page telling Republicans: "Don't Gamble on Ralph."

"Sen.Cagle loves to set up Web sites smearing Ralph Reed with half-truths or innuendos," Mr. Thomas said.

There's little doubt the Abramoff allegations have damaged Mr. Reed, at least in the Atlanta area, where the media have aggressively covered the scandal, said Emory political science professor Merle Black. How much damage is another question.

"You can't tell," Mr. Black said, noting the lack of impartial polling in the race. "We're flying blind here. I think he's certainly been hurt, especially in the Atlanta metropolitan area."

But Mr. Reed could offset that with a powerful showing in rural areas, where social conservatives tend to be stronger, Mr. Black said.

As for Mr. Reed's allegations against Mr. Cagle, Mr. Digby is not so sure they will have as much impact.

"I think it's going to be harder to sell that to the voters than it is simply to put out the connection between Mr. Reed and the Washington lobbyists," he said.

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.