Ralph Reed handicaps the Republican presidential race

Ralph Reed, founder and chair of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, pictured in Atlanta, Ga.
Ralph Reed, founder and chair of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, pictured in Atlanta, Ga.

ATLANTA (CBS) - Conservative activists Ralph Reed is officially neutral in this year's Republican presidential primary race, but he knows what conservative Christian voters are looking for.

"They've been hungering for an authentic faith-based candidate," Reed said in an interview this week in his Atlanta home. About six in ten expectant voters participating in the Republican presidential primary in Georgia this Tuesday identify as evangelicals, according to Reed.

"Here, I think a lot of conservative evangelicals want to get behind Rick Santorum, but you have a lot of people who feel a sense of loyalty to Newt, because of all that he did to make Georgia a Republican state," Reed said.

When Newt Gingrich was first elected to Congress in 1978, he was the lone Republican in the state's then ten-member delegation. By the time he became Speaker in 1994, and the state's congressional map had undergone redistricting, Georgia sent eight Republicans and three Democrats to the House of Representatives.

Today in Georgia, the governorship, both houses of the state legislature, both U.S. senators, and two-thirds of the congressional delegation are Republican. Reed, 50, having served as Georgia Republican Party Chairman, was instrumental in building that success, despite an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in Georgia in 2006.)

"Newt has a Moses-like profile in the Republican Party. He led the Republican Party nationally out of the wilderness from minority status to majority status in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years," Reed said. "Not only that, he brought about the first balanced budgets in people's lifetimes, the deepest and broadest tax cuts since the Reagan presidency, the reform of welfare -- moving two million people from dependency to work and independence and dignity. So he's a transformational figure."

Reed founded, and now chairs, the Faith and Freedom Coalition - a kind of blend of the Christian Coalition he used to run in the 1990s and the Tea Party. The FFC, with 40-thousand members in 30 states, plans to mail 30 million non-partisan voters guides this year.

Reed called former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum a "very accomplished legislator" on issues such as banning late-term abortion and providing school choice. "He's been a fighter and someone who wasn't afraid to take on tough issues," Reed said. "If he wants to win the nomination, he needs to broaden the message beyond that without shedding it."

He expects Santorum to grab many votes that went to Mike Huckabee in the 2008 Georgia primary, where Huckabee (34 percent) beat John McCain (32 percent) and Mitt Romney (30 percent).

Reed said Romney's shortcomings with Christian conservatives stem from the former Massachussetts' governor's "much more moderate past" and "moderate pedigree," including his father, George, a two-term Michigan governor and member of President Nixon's cabinet.

"As a candidate in Massachusetts, particularly when he ran [for Senate] against Ted Kennedy in '94, he ran as a pro-choice candidate," Reed noted. He also cited the state health insurance plan Romney signed into law as governor as drag on his presidential candidacy.

"If he keeps making his case, and he keeps winning his share of those voters, then should he become the nominee, then this process will have been good for him," Reed said. "Through the competition and the rough and tumble of being challenged by a Santorum and a Newt, he was able to make his case to those [evangelical] voters. That will be, should Romney be the ultimate nominee, much better for him than had he simply been anointed and not had a fight."

Reed discounted how much Romney's religion -- he is a Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- is a factor alienating Christian conservatives. He said Romney won about half the evangelical vote in his Florida primary win.

"I think there are some voters who will not vote for Mitt Romney in the primary because of those theological differences, but I think it is a very distinct minority," Reed said. "I'm very confident that voters are more than capable of making a distinction between whether to not they share somebody's theology and whether or not they share someone's values and public policy views."