Before the last of Ralph Reed’s campaign signs were stripped from the swank hotel where he watched his election collapse, his supporters huddled in small circles to quietly discuss his political future.

They weren’t the only ones wondering what’s next for the 45-year-old former Christian Coalition leader, famous for helping lead conservative Republicans to nationwide victory but unable to win Georgia’s No. 2 job.

Some say Reed’s ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his convincing defeat at the hands of little-known state Sen. Casey Cagle will force him to return to the behind-the-scenes strategizing that made him famous.

Others argue that the man who proclaimed himself a "happy warrior" is too competitive to give up his political dreams because of one defeat.

"I will tell you this: He is far too bright and has far too much promise to count him out," said Sadie Fields, head of Georgia’s Christian Coalition and Reed’s longtime political ally. "I would certainly hope to see him come back to fight again another day."

Regardless, few would disagree that Reed’s work with Abramoff, who was convicted of fraud and corruption earlier this year, dealt a blow to his personal reputation and sidelined for now his political hopes.

"You would imagine that somebody who is defeated for the Republican nomination of the lieutenant governor for Georgia would hang it up. But the thing about politicians is how seldom they do," said Steve Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor at George Washington University. "You never count out anybody who has got politics in their DNA. And certainly Ralph Reed does."

Reed’s bid for the lieutenant governor’s seat hinged on whether he could convince supporters, particularly in Republican strongholds of suburban Atlanta, to look beyond the work he did with Abramoff.

Yet in his 12-point loss to Cagle, Reed was able to carry only two counties in metro Atlanta, and those by the skin of his teeth. Aside from Savannah’s Chatham County and Augusta’s Richmond County, the 59 counties that Reed won were mostly small, rural areas in Georgia’s more conservative pockets.

Reed will still be valued for his vast Rolodex of Republican contacts, yet analysts said the feeling that he is damaged goods could plunge him deeper into the state GOP network.

"My guess is that he’ll be more behind-the-scenes than he ever was before," said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute.

Reed declined interviews with reporters on the day after his defeat. At his upbeat concession speech Tuesday night — less than three hours after the polls closed — he didn’t reveal much about his political future.

"I’m not focused on being a candidate in the future, but I’m glad I ran," he said to cheering supporters.

© 2006 The Associated Press