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The Kingdom and the Clout Of Ralph Reed

The Christian Coalition took it on the chin when President Bush lost his reelection bid; now the group wields unprecedented power at all levels of politics

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RALPH REED may be one of the most powerful men in American politics, but he doesn't live close to the country's traditional center of power.

To find him, you must first drive south of Washington, D.C., for 3-1/2 hours, into the sleepy Navy town of Chesapeake, Va., squeezed between Virginia Beach and the Great Dismal Swamp. Then search out the industrial park on Sara Drive.

At one corner, double glass doors modestly announce ''Christian Coalition,'' the organization run by the youthful Mr. Reed since its inception in 1989. Inside lies a warren of offices and a mailing warehouse, its shelves filled with books, pamphlets, and videotapes with titles like ''Running and Winning as a Christian Conservative.''

This is the nerve center of the Christian right's most politically potent organization. With a reported membership of 1.7 million people, it has emerged as one of the most powerful grass-roots forces in American politics - and one of the most controversial.

Just a few years ago, it was considered little more than a fringe group of born-again conservatives concerned about abortion and school prayer. Today it is pushing a broad agenda that runs from taxes to prison reform. The group has direct pipelines into the power centers of Congress, most of the GOP presidential campaigns, and elective offices throughout the country from statehouses to school boards.

Such heady influence for such an obscurely located group. Just how Reed likes it.

''To be perfectly honest with you, I think it's one of the keys to our success,'' said Reed in an interview at the headquarters, originally placed there to be near founder Pat Robertson's other operations. ''We're outside of the beltway. We're 3-1/2 hours and 3,000 mental miles away from the nation's capital, and as a result, we have more of a grass-roots flavor.

''We go to Washington to fight battles. We don't live it; we don't breathe it; we don't sleep it; it doesn't define us,'' says Reed, adding that the coalition does have a fully staffed office in the city.

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