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WASHINGTON-He was once the top rainmaker of Republican political consultants, winning the title by acclamation after managing Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign. Now he's being called "The Phoenix."

But for Ed Rollins, that's better than not being called at all, which might have been the price the communications strategist was expected to pay for his ill-chosen remarks following the 1993 gubernatorial election of his candidate, Republican Christine Whitman of New Jersey.

When Mr. Rollins claimed in November to have handed out $500,000 to African-American ministers in New Jersey to hold down the vote in traditionally Democratic strongholds, conventional wisdom suggested he had chiseled his own professional epitaph. Add the intraparty irritation he engendered by briefly managing the independent 1992 presidential bid of Ross Perot, and Mr. Rollins might have been forever left with his nose pressed to the political glass, watching everyone else having fun.

But with five political clients this year, that obviously is not the case. And the reasons come down to pragmatic politics, say friends, enemies and fellow consultants. Mr. Rollins himself was considerably more circumspect this time around, declining to be interviewed.

Among his clients in 1994 are U.S. Rep. Mike Huffington, pursuing the U.S. Senate seat from California held by Democrat Dianne Feinstein; Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Benson in Colorado; and Bernadette Castro, who's in an uphill fight against Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D., N.Y.).

"In the old days, he would be dead now-all over," said Tom Edmonds, president of the American Association of Political Consultants. "But with the minimal ties that now exist between the party and its candidates and consultants, that's no longer the case. The party has no control over the candidates, much less who they hire.

"Once upon a time-maybe in Eisenhower's days-consultants were not to be seen or quoted," said Mr. Edmonds, who's also president of Edmonds Associates. "Today it's more a case of `It doesn't matter if it's good news or bad news as long as you spell the name right.' Notoriety is almost more important today than if you're good or bad."

Democratic political adman Ray Strother also knows what it's like to feel the heat. Competitors bad-mouthed him when he decided to continue working for longtime client Buddy Roemer, who was elected governor of Louisiana as a Democrat in 1987 but ran for re-election as a Republican in 1991.

"There are some basic needs in this world-food, shelter, sex and re-election-and people will hire anyone who will help them get re-elected," said Mr. Strother, president of Strother, Duffy, Strother. "And Ed Rollins is damn good, and those kind won't ever be discarded. He has enough weight in the community and among Republicans that people won't lean on him too hard because of his connections.

"All Ed needs is a victory," Mr. Strother said. "This is a business of the quick and the dead; some people get famous quickly, then fade away, while others take the hits but have resiliency. That's Rollins."

Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant who worked on the 1992 George Bush presidential ad team, had a simpler explanation.

"Ed Rollins wins races," said Mr. Castellanos, VP at National Media, Alexandria, Va. "And that is what politics is all about .*.*. And as long as he wins, people will be willing to forgive and forget little transgressions."

Mr. Edmonds acknowledged Mr. Rollins' misstep won't add to the already fragile credibility or reputation of political consultants.

"I think it's a black mark that's associated with him and, if he's a prominent practitioner, it reinforces the negative image of political consultants," Mr. Strother said. "If he had been banished, that would indicate there is some measure of industry self-regulation. But if he can get a black eye and still be a successful practitioner, everyone's worst suspicions are reinforced."

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