Ralph Reed: Political Strategist or Corporate Flack?

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In the past year or so, Ralph Reed has repeatedly shed his skin and emerged in roles few might have predicted. After leaving his post as head of the Christian Coalition, the baby-faced conservative headed to the George W. Bush camp, ready to act as campaign consultant via his company, Century Strategies. Now Reed is molting again, having caught the eye of Bill Gates, who's currently bracing for the punishment phase against his company, which was found guilty of monopoly tactics two weeks ago. According to the New York Times, Gates moved decisively and secured Reed's services as a key strategist for the ongoing Microsoft barrage of self-defense. Reed's responsibilities? To bend Bush's ear in favor of easing up on the software giant if and when Dubya takes office.

Microsoft isn't taking any chances on this public relations push, and in the interest of covering its bases it has accrued some serious Democratic influence to complement its grip on the GOP. But even amidst Microsoft's acquisition of high-profile pols like former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, Reed's appointment is raising a few eyebrows in the capital, says TIME Washington correspondent Viveca Novak. "Microsoft has been forking over huge amounts of money in the last year, hiring lobbyists with great connections who will plead their case," says Novak. "So no one is surprised they're adding people to their roster. But Reed's appointment could turn the heads of a few people who wonder how someone like him can serve two powerful interests at once." Not to mention folks who wonder what other Fortune 500 companies are lining the pockets of Bush and Gore advisers.

In the meantime, Microsoft's methods of seduction continue at a jaw-dropping pace; the company has shelled out nearly $750,000 to the political parties, and the New York Times reports that Reed's company offered lobbyists $300 for each pro-Microsoft letter they wrangled out of their constituents. For the sake of excitement, it's too bad the primaries are over: Gates' maneuvers are probably causing John McCain serious gastrointestinal distress — underscoring the awesome power of corporate wealth over the political process.