Ed Rollins: Meaner than Nofziger


WASHINGTON -- Because both men are bearded, balding and brusque, some might think Ed Rollins is a clone of Lyn Nofziger, the man he is replacing as White House political director.

No such thing, says Rollins. 'I wear suits. I drink scotch. I keep my shoes on. I comb my hair in the middle and he doesn't comb his. I always say I'm meaner.'


Rollins certainly has the credentials of a battler. In 1964, he was an alternate on the U.S. Olympic boxing team. Because he was overweight for his 165-pound class, Rollins, who had an amateur record of 154 knockouts in 167 bouts, found himself training with bigger men. Much bigger men.

'My most awesome boxing experience was having to spar with Joe Frazier,' Rollins said in a recent interview. 'We were about the same age but I weighed about 167 and he weighed 191, 192. And the problem was, he didn't know how to spar. I was in the middle of the ocean trying to get to shore without drowning.'


Rollins, now 39, has been Nofziger's deputy since Ronald Reagan moved into the White House, and an off-and-on associate for 10 years. Both have been deeply involved in California Republican politics, but Rollins appears to be more oriented to the technique and technology of campaigning than Nofziger.

Nofziger is a kind of latter day Louis Howe, the New York newspaperman who helped guide Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency. Nofziger was a Washington reporter for 16 years before returning to California in 1966 to be Reagan's press secretary. Except for a brief tour with the Nixon administration, he has been close to Reagan ever since.

Perpetually rumpled, cheerfully profane and fiercely loyal, Nofziger was the conservative watchman in the White House in the first year of the Reagan administration, examining the political credentials of job seekers and maintaining a link between the president and his sometimes restive supporters in the New Right. He is leaving, as he said from the first he would, after one year on the job.

Rollins, like many in the political life, is a native of Massachusetts, but he grew up in California in what he called a conservative, working class Democratic family. 'My father was a union man, just a redneck, blue collar worker; a Reagan Democrat.'


Rollins' first job was as a deputy director of the War on Poverty agency in Solano, Calif., where he went to college. He went on to teach political science in several colleges, earning a doctorate at Washington University in St. Louis.

Along the way, he held staff positions for Republicans in the California legislature, worked for the state manufacturers association, and served with both the Commerce and Transportation departments in Washington during the 1970s.

The job Rollins is taking over in 1982 might be comparable to his task 18 years ago on the Olympic team. Since 1900, every president except two -- Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt -- have seen their political party lose strength in one or both houses of Congress in the first elections after they entered the White House.

The Republicans have a three-seat edge in the Senate, but are 26 short of a majority in the House going into the 1982 mid-term elections. In the last 30 years, presidents' parties have lost nearly 30 House seats and three in the Senate in mid-term elections.

'History is against us,' Rollins conceded. But he said both Roosevelts were 'activist presidents' and so is Reagan, whom he predicted would be in the thick of the 1982 campaign -- via radio and television and on the stump himself if security permits. The White House effort on behalf of Republican candidates, he suggested, would be stronger than any in recent decades.


Noting that the Democrats finally appear to be modernizing their campaign machinery, Rollins said, 'We won't have the technological advantage we have had in the past; they'll match us.'

But, noting that the Republican National Committee raised $32 million in 1981, of which all but about $12 million could go into campaigning, he said, 'They won't match us in dollars.' But Rollins said he does not believe money always buys victory: 'The Democrats have proven that dollars are not particularly relevant -- we outspent them in that Hinson (House) race in Mississippi three-to-one and lost.'

'The key is that you have to have a good candidate; you have to have a good manager; you have to have enough money to run an adequate campaign,' he said. 'Clearly, they will have adequate money to run a decent campaign. Not as much as we will have but they have compensating factors -- organized labor to help identify and get out the vote.'

Rollins believes the controversial 'independent' campaign groups such as the National Conservative Political Action Committee have a legitimate role in offsetting some of the help the Democrats gets from the unions. But he thinks NCPAC and the others ought to consider pulling back after 'softening up' Democratic candidates when the official GOP campaign gets rolling.


Rollins makes no bones about the intention of the White House to play a major role in the 1982 elections, indicating but not actually saying he expects the Republican National Committee and the House and Senate GOP campaign committees to adapt themselves to the word from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ever since Watergate, there has been a good deal of sensitivity among Republican campaign groups about White House domination, but Rollins said, 'Ronald Reagan is the titular head of the party. The national committee should reflect his viewpoint, his goals and his objectives. I would expect the national committee to work in close coordination with us.'

Rollins was complimentary of Republican national chairman Richard Richards, whom he said 'has done everything we have asked of him. Clearly, Dick Richards will contine to be Republican national chairman and will be very supportive of the White House.'

Besides Rollins, the White House political team will include chief of staff James Baker, who was campaign chairman for both Gerald Ford and George Bush against Reagan in 1976 and 1980. They will meet regularly with Richards and Rich Bond, the national committee deputy chairman recently detailed from Bush's staff, and the chairmen of the congressional campaigns committees.


That working group already has targeted 40 Democratic-held House seats for attention, along with identifying 40 GOP seats that will need extra defensive attention and 20 'open' seats that will be worth making an extra effort to win.

Rollins also said every liberal or moderate 'Gypsy Moth' Republican who backed Reagan during the 1981 budget and tax battles will get the full support of the White House. He said at least 18 of the 20 conservative 'Boll Weevil' Democrats who backed Reagan down the line were politically unassailable even without a pledge from the president to lay off them in 1982.

But he added: 'In every race we feel there is a Democrat who can be beaten and we have a rival Republican candidate, whether the White House is in there or not, the Republican National Committee or the congressional committees will be in there.'

'I think we can get close (to a House majority),' he said. 'I'm not going to say we are going to win a majority, but very clearly the shot is there to pick up 10 or 15 seats.' And, if the Republicans come close to a majority, Rollins said, it is possible that conservative Democrats may be induced to switch parties.


'We've got six that we've been dealing with for the last several months who are interested in becoming Republicans,' he said. 'If we come within 10 or 12 of a majority, we can clearly go for those people.'

Rollins, who works out of a suite of offices in the roccoco Old Executive Office Building that were once Richard Nixon's favored 'hideaway,' noted that the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic congressional campaign committee are led by Californians - Charles Manatt and Rep. Tony Coehlo.

'I think you are going to see this time, because there are so many Californians, a lot more direct mail campaigning as opposed to radio and television,' he said.

Rollins said direct mail and negative or 'attack' campaigning was brought to a high art in California politics, and said, 'I have very much been an advocate of raising negative issues if they are there.'

But, in a non-sequitur that fits the case, Rollins added: 'There is one golden rule that you always have to abide by -- if you are going to get down in the gutter, you better be sure your candidate is clean.'

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