Ed Rollins becomes the Lazarus of consultants


LOS ANGELES -- He's back. He's busy. And he wants redemption.

Lesser operatives might have crumbled after such a spectacular collision with ignominy. They might have shriveled up and died, metaphorically anyway, to find themselves consigned to the status of a David Letterman joke. Saddled with labels like "liar" and "racist" -- his own dark vision of how his post-New Jersey obituary might read -- others might have limped off to the Sahara of corporate communications, the political junkie's notion of hell itself.

But not Ed Rollins.

The man who in 1993 helped deliver New Jersey to Republican gubernatorial candidate Christine Todd Whitman is determined that this year he will have a hand in turning over a seat in the U.S. Senate from California to first-term Republican congressman Mike Huffington. At the same time, he's juggling four other GOP candidates in as many states.

He has resolved to restore his reputation and to resurrect himself as the Republican party's top non-elected vote-getter -- one of the few in his party, as he puts it, "who knows the game now."

Except that after the votes are counted -- after, if Mr. Rollins' strategy holds true, Mr. Huffington defeats Democratic incumbent Dianne Feinstein -- don't look for Mr. Rollins to attend too many media breakfasts. That was how he got in trouble last time, boasting that the Whitman campaign had paid out half a million dollars to African American clergy and elected officials to help limit the turnout of predominantly Democratic black voters.

"My little crisis" is how Mr. Rollins characterizes this particular debacle, or sometimes "my little firestorm." His remarks the week after Ms. Whitman's big win landed him in front of a grand jury, produced a two-month inquiry by the FBI and saw him sacked from his weekly stint as a political analyst for the "Today" show.

The grand jury and the FBI exonerated him; "Today" did not invite him back.

But the Huffingtons did. The freshman congressman and his wife immediately called Mr. Rollins. They took him to dinner and mentioned that one day soon they might be needing his help.

"They were very kind," Mr. Rollins remembered. Quietly, he took over as the Huffingtons' chief strategist in early June.

Mr. Rollins is known as a guy who can rattle off a catchy quote almost before the question is finished. But sometimes, as his occasional friend and frequent sparring partner James Carville observed, "he talks too much." In 1989, for example, Mr. Rollins lost his job as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee after he urged GOP candidates to distance themselves from George Bush. Mr. Rollins later retaliated by marketing his services to independent presidential candidate Ross Perot.

But the New Jersey gaffe so shook Mr. Rollins that he sought solace in the Catholic Church, from which he had been estranged off and on for decades. Experienced political hands contended that the racial overtones of Mr. Rollins' comments about New Jersey were so damaging that he was washed up in politics forever.

But, managing five campaigns in the 1994 season, he is starting to look like the Lazarus of American political consultants.

"The political consultant is judged by only one yardstick: winning," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia government professor who wrote "The Rise of Political Consultants" (Basic Books, 1981). "It's a commentary on our system when we value winning more than we do ethics."

The implication that Ms. Whitman's campaign strategists might have tried to pay black leaders not to turn out in the New Jersey race against Democrat Jim Florio is a reflection of "the gutter level at which politics is conducted," charged University of Southern California law professor Susan Estrich, one of the primary architects of Michael Dukakis' failed 1988 presidential bid.

But Sherrie Rollins, who is 36 and a senior vice president of ABC in New York, said she worried that her husband might be overextending himself. Twelve years ago, Ed Rollins was nearly killed by a stroke, the apparent legacy of a head injury from his youthful career as a boxer. Now, she said, "I really was worried about him physically doing it. I kept saying, 'How could you put one more thing on your plate when you're spread so thin as it is?' "

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