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Ed Rollins' Hard Road to Redemption : Politics: The GOP campaign commando's loose tongue cost him dearly. But, like a Phoenix, he's back--and working with five candidates.

October 28, 1994|ELIZABETH MEHREN and GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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 Rollins' strategy holds true, Huffington defeats Democratic incumbent Dianne Feinstein--don't look for 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 Rollins characterizes this particular debacle, or sometimes "my little firestorm." His remarks the week after 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. Never mind that Gov. Whitman has not spoken to Rollins since his little crisis. The freshman congressman and his wife immediately called Rollins to commiserate. They took him to dinner, and over the entree, mentioned that one day soon, they might be needing his help.

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

*

Wistfulness is not generally a quality associated with someone who looks just like one of Santa's elves. Gazing out his one small window at the Huffington-for-Senate headquarters in Costa Mesa, Rollins--short, round and bearded--sounded momentarily pensive as he mused, "If I could have that one paragraph back. . . . If I could answer the same question and have most of the facts stay the same. . . ."

He shook his head. He was flush with bravado when the words leaped out, he said. Somehow, "my mouth and my brain were not connected." It was a "sin of arrogance," his own pet phrase for Rollinsgate, and it cost him. Big time.

Not that this was the first time his loose tongue had been his undoing. 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, Rollins lost his job as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee after he urged GOP candidates to distance themselves from George Bush. Rollins later retaliated by marketing his services to independent presidential candidate Ross Perot.

But the New Jersey gaffe so shook 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 Rollins' comments about New Jersey were so damaging that he was washed up in politics forever. But Rollins was not so sure. Soon enough, his desire for redemption saw him managing five campaigns in the 1994 season.

But if he was starting to look like the Lazarus of American political consultants--risen again--this was not an image the Feinstein camp was about to swallow.

"He hasn't risen yet," snapped Kam Kuwata, Feinstein's campaign manager.

Politics is nothing if not nasty. But even in politics, theoretically, there are some minimal standards.

"For the first time in my life that I know of, I caused pain and anguish to others," Rollins said.

On the other hand, though, "I got her elected."

And when the votes are in, so to speak, for a political consultant that's what counts.

"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."

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