WASHINGTON, D.C.: After eight years in which he became easily the most powerful man on the Religious Right, Ralph Reed has decided to resign as the executive director of the Christian Coalition to take a more direct hand in politics. Reed said Wednesday he will step down in September to form a political consulting firm called Century Strategies. For the highly ambitious Reed, the move frees him from the limitations imposed by the Coalition's tax-exempt status. As a religious organization, the group is prohibited from directly endorsing candidates, or having official ties to a political party, a line that Reed has closely skirted in the past. TIME's Laurence Barrett notes that Reed, who built up Pat Robertson's moribund operation into a 1.6 million-member behemoth by 1995, is a shrewd political operative who should be very successful running campaigns. "Reed is considered a very skilled, talented person in the field of political strategy and tactics," Barrett says. "He knows how the machine works, and he knows how to work it." Likely clients include candidates in high-visibility Senate races in the '98 midterm elections. "Reed could work for any clients he wants, which he couldn't do under the Christian Coalition because of its nature. Now he can be a much more direct political operative."