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Ticket Chat: Ralph Reed, author and GOP strategist, on the '08 race

July 10, 2008 |  8:58 am

This is another in a continuing series of conversations between The Ticket and those people involved in many aspects of modern American presidential politics, which explore the inner workings of this complex business.

This item is the first of a two-part conversation with Ralph Reed, a Republican political strategist who's been involved in seven presidential campaigns, including as senior advisor to both campaigns of George W. Bush. He has not endorsed or donated to any presidential campaign yet, but is on the host committee for a John McCain event next month in Atlanta.

Reed was the first executive director 15 years ago of the Christian Coalition and currently runs Century Strategies, an Atlanta public relations firm that advises major corporations. He's also the author of a new book, a novel titled "Dark Horse," published by Simon & Schuster.

Republican political strategist and author of the new political thriller book Dark Horse, Ralph Reed

In this item, Reed examines the GOP side of the 2008 presidential race and talks about his surprise at the outcome of those primaries, the difficulties for the party in 2008, what McCain needs to avoid between now and Nov. 4, and the genesis of his book.

TOTT: What most surprised you about the outcome of the Republican primaries?

Reed: John McCain winning the nomination after essentially running out of money and laying off most of his staff in the summer of 2007 was amazing.  His win in New Hampshire was a real Lazarus moment.

Mike Huckabee doing so well in Iowa and then winning a string of later primaries showed the continuing strength of the evangelical vote and underscored the importance of good candidate skills.

TOTT: McCain seems to have had some trouble gaining traction in this three-month general election head start. How do you explain this and do you see the latest reorganization in his camp having any effects, positive or negative?

Reed: Steve Schmidt, Mike DuHaime, Nicole Wallace and the rest of the people playing new and important roles at the McCain campaign are extremely capable.  I worked with all of them in the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign and found them to be professional, talented and smart.

They'll do a good job, but it's a tough environment for Republicans this year. If they let the election be about style, Obama will be hard to beat. The McCain campaign needs to make the election about issues and substance. If they do, McCain will win.

TOTT: Given the historical reservations toward Sen. McCain in the evangelical community, do you think most of them will or are coming around to him, given the Democratic alternative? Or is your reading that they'll likely sit this one out on Nov. 4? What should McCain do about it?

Reed: I think they're highly unlikely to sit it out because the stakes are so high. In fact, this election...

may see the highest turnout of the electorate since 1968, and maybe since 1960.  The most recent Wall Street Journal poll shows McCain leading Obama among evangelicals by a margin of 69% to 21%.

Anything north of 70% means McCain will probably carry a solid South, where about half of evangelicals live.

That will require Obama to win 73% of all the remaining electoral votes to win, which is not easy to do.  Remember: No Democrat has ever won the White House without carrying at least four Southern states.  McCain needs to spend the bulk of his time appealing to independent voters, who will decide the election.

But his campaign should not shy away from laying out the clear differences between the two candidates on marriage, abortion and values.

TOTT: How real do you see the possibility of significant numbers of Hillary Clinton supporters switching over to McCain?

Reed: I think there will be some of that, mostly among traditionalist Catholic, union members in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio. It is part of what is helping McCain win about 12% of the Democratic vote, according to some polls. If McCain can get to 20% of the Democratic vote, he will win.

TOTT: What are the The cover of Dark Horse by Ralph Reedtop 4-5 criteria that McCain should consider in choosing a vice presidential candidate? Have you got any names that jump out in your mind?

Reed: He needs a running mate who is 1) a proven, credible conservative to energize the grass roots of the Republican Party; 2) someone with a demonstrated crossover appeal among women, independents, Democrats, and preferably Hispanics; 3) can pass the laugh test among both voters and the chattering class as someone ready to become president down the road.

Whatever one thinks of Dick Cheney (and I think he's gotten a bum rap), he has transformed the vice presidency into the second most important office in the nation. This is a real change, and the bar is now higher for running mates. 

And given McCain's age, he needs a running mate who will be seen by voters as someone who could succeed him.

Finally, if Obama does not pick a woman, especially after beating Hillary, then McCain should look seriously at qualified women. I'd prefer not to get into names because the bench is so deep and there are so many qualified people (and I don't want to offend any friends who are on the list!)

TOTT: Finally this time, you've just published your first novel and, amazingly, it's about politics. Without revealing that Gov. Long gets assassinated in the third chapter (just kidding), tell us a little about it and why you moved into fiction? Will we recognize any real-life figures in "Dark Horse"?

Reed: I outlined "Dark Horse" and wrote the first chapter in 1976 because I was intrigued by the independent presidential candidacy of Gene McCarthy, who was then running against Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The genesis was: What happened if someone who was truly compelling, charismatic and well-funded made a run as an independent for president?  There is a market for such a candidate, as Ross Perot demonstrated briefly in 1992. 

Why fiction?  Because it hasn't happened yet!  But I think it could.

In Part II, which should appear in the next day or so,The Ticket seeks Reed's take on the Democratic ticket, its advantages, drawbacks and who Obama might pick for his running mate. He also examines the changing roles that the traditional -- and the new -- media are playing in presidential politics.

To read Part II of this Ticket Chat, click here.

--Andrew Malcolm

Photo credit: Simon and Schuster