As Huckabee Pulls Ad, Rollins, For Once, Must Pull a Punch

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Highlights from Mike Huckabee's press conference on Dec. 31, during which he announces he's pulling an attack ad against Mitt Romney. Video by Chet Rhodes & Jackie Refo/washingtonpost.com

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By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

DES MOINES -- "The negatives feel good," says Ed Rollins, the onetime wunderkind of the Reagan White House and now, at 64, the national campaign chairman for upstart Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. "It's like being a boxer when you're young. To me, hitting somebody, knocking somebody down, is a great feeling. Firing out a negative ad just feels amazing."

But this time, the blow did not land exactly as intended. It is New Year's Eve and Rollins is sitting in a bar area in the Wakonda Club, slightly slouched in his chair, wearing a gray suit. Just hours earlier, Huckabee had stunned reporters expecting the launch of a hard-hitting TV ad attacking Mitt Romney; instead, he pulled the spot crafted by Rollins.

Surrounded by placards declaring "Enough Is Enough," Huckabee showed the ad he said he wasn't going to run, leaving reporters scrambling to determine whether this was a planned maneuver, an act of bad timing or something lifted from a Capra movie. "I just realized that this is not how we run our campaign in this state," the candidate said. "We've gotten here by being positive." All that was missing was Zuzu's petals.

Rollins, as both a former pugilist and a backroom storyteller, is great with the blow-by-blow. So he's giving us his version of what happened. The original idea for the advertising campaign was his, says Rollins, who joined the campaign in December. Though not entirely comfortable with Rollins's approach, Huckabee certainly wasn't happy with what Romney was doing with his record.

"Anybody knows you can't have millions and millions of dollars spent against you -- particularly in Iowa -- without it having an impact," Rollins says. "I just said, 'I'm going to give you the best counsel I can. We're sliding back in the polls. We're still up, but we've lost ground and it's one of those things where people begin to question whether if you don't respond, 'Is it true?' "

This feeling ultimately led Huckabee -- with Rollins and others in tow -- back home to Little Rock on Sunday. The 30-second commercial was filmed in one day and shipped to stations across Iowa. Rollins loved the ad for the way Huckabee lashed out at Romney's own record on gun control and abortion.

Then came Huckabee's morning run on Monday back in Des Moines. His head cleared from exercise and prayer, he told Rollins and others he'd changed his mind about the whole thing. He wanted it stopped.

But there wasn't much time. One radio spot prepared in connection with the TV ads had aired early in the morning and a whole slew of them were set to start at noon. Television time had been purchased. Moreover, in order to get some related direct-mail pieces out in time, the campaign had used first-class stamps. Now, the campaign had to stop the truck set to deliver them to the post office.

"I told him, 'As far as I'm concerned, governor, it's your race. You've gotten this far. I've only been here two weeks,' " Rollins recalls. "But I also told him there's going to be a definite reaction, a cynicism from the press. You didn't have 100 reporters and 30 cameras sitting in a room because you're putting up a commercial. They think they're here to see Ed Rollins coming back to drop to the knees and fire at the groin of Mitt Romney."

Rollins says it had been his idea to show the ad to reporters, the logic being that it was already in the hands of television stations. As for the gathering, Rollins says, "Now would I have loved to cancel the press conference? You betcha. Would I have loved to pull the signs down? Yes. But this decision was made about 11, 11:10 in the morning." The news conference was scheduled for noon.

Riding in the elevator afterward, Rollins says, he told Huckabee, " 'Governor, this is what it means to be president. The president gets lots of advice and makes a lot of tough decisions . . . But you made the decision.' "

"I admire the fact he's trying to change the environment," Rollins says. "What I have to do is make sure that my anger with a guy like Romney, whose teeth I want to knock out, doesn't get in the way of my thought process."


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