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."
* * *
A couple of days before, at a Huckabee event at a community center in Perry, a 45-minute drive from here, Rollins explained his relationship with the candidate: "He's praying for me and I'll help him brawl. I'll help him brawl, absolutely. I would be irresponsible to a client if I didn't say, 'You've got to go negative, you've got to respond.' "
(Asked about the brawling comment, Huckabee said by e-mail, through a spokeswoman, "He is! And I'm teaching him how to turn the other cheek!")
And now the Ed Rollins tough-guy narrative takes yet another turn. He is the one-time enforcer of the Reagan White House, the kid who helped the Gipper win 49 states in his 1984 reelection bid. He's the man who first betrayed his party by going to work for Ross Perot, then wrote a scathing, expletive-ridden book in which he lashed out at prominent Republicans. He is the man who keeps saying he should have quit politics years ago, that his last race was his really last. Finally he is the man that can't help himself, the one who keeps coming back.
"I think I speak for most of the other former Reagan people when I say we weren't surprised that he got into the big pool again," says former Nevada governor and senator Paul Laxalt, who served as national chairman of three Reagan presidential campaigns. "He's always been the one person to wade into the deep water to see what's on the other side."
His swimming partner of choice certainly differs from more notorious clients in recent years. Unlike in the disastrous Senate campaigns of Michael Huffington and Katherine Harris, here Rollins got to know, really know the candidate before joining him.
He and Huckabee first met early last year at the New York home of Republican icon Georgette Mosbacher. After Huckabee spoke, Rollins, the grizzled brawler, says he felt deeply moved and told Huckabee so. Then, over the series of debates which Rollins calls "stupid," he watched Huckabee closely and grew to like him more. In early December, Rollins sent an e-mail to Huckabee offering his paid services, which Huckabee accepted.
"With someone like me," Rollins says, "you've got someone who's been around the track. If I don't have a good horse, I'm not going to win. But if I have a medium horse, I can make him a competitor. If I have a great horse, he's a winner. All I have to do is not fall off."
The thrice-married Rollins says he's found that kind of sturdiness with Huckabee. Soon after accepting his post, he traveled to Little Rock to see campaign manager Chip Saltzman's operation. He came away pleasantly surprised by Saltzman's frugality and the nimbleness of the shop. There weren't dozens of consultants and media teams being ushered in and out. Here was a campaign where he wouldn't be just a name on a letterhead, or just another voice. Here was someone he could actually help.
"Ronald Reagan was the first person to influence me," Saltzman says. "To get a chance to work with a guy that not only knew him, but worked closely with, is like getting to shoot hoops with someone like Larry Bird or Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan when you've been shooting hoops in the back yard."
In recent weeks, the affable Huckabee, who was never supposed to be taken seriously, has earned serious examination. Romney has attacked him on immigration and taxes, and Huckabee's clemencies granted as governor have provided great fodder for Romney ads in Iowa.
"This is not me going down some reminiscent trail," Rollins says. "It's me seeing someone who's tapping into a populist dissatisfaction in this country as it was in '92, as it was in '80 with Reagan. I mean this with all sincerity. I told my wife last night that I've haven't had more fun or been more turned on by a candidate since Reagan. There's a sincerity there. He's smart. He's a young Reagan."
Rollins remains a true believer in the Reagan Revolution. A street fighter and aspiring boxer from a tough neighborhood in Vallejo, Calif., he worked his way through statewide politics before helping the former actor vault his way to national prominence. But he's taken his own path more often than not, which some within the party still bristle at.
Last year, during her unsuccessful bid for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in New York, Kathleen "KT" McFarland received a letter from then-state GOP Chairman Stephen Minarik urging her to "dump Ed Rollins" if she wanted to run a serious campaign.
"A review of Mr. Rollins' own words finds a wake of negative and destructive commentary on Republican officials and candidates across the nation," Minarik wrote.
But Rollins feels secure in the post he has with Huckabee. "I'm here and they're happy to have me," the old hand says.
"There's still a very tough campaign. Romney's not going to change his tactics. . . . If we win here with a positive message, then we'll continue with the positive message. But I reserve the opportunity to go back to my candidate every day and say, 'I've been in this business a long time. I've been around the track. This is the best advice I can give you.' "
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this article.