Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who shape American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talked with Ed Rollins, the former Reagan political director, who signed on last week as national chairman of the surging Mike Huckabee presidential campaign.
CBSNews.com: Let's start with the attacks on Governor Huckabee from a lot of Republican establishment figures lately. Rush Limbaugh has called him "the Huckster." Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, has said it would be suicide to nominate him. Why do you think he's provoking all of this criticism?
Ed Rollins: Well, I think first of all he is not an establishment candidate. I don't think anybody anticipated early on when he started to run that he would do as well as he's doing. Some of these guys have picked other candidates.
And I think, to a certain extent, the alleged wise men have sat around in either the studios, or the newsrooms, basically writing magazine articles. They didn't see it coming and I think they underestimated him.
CBSNews.com: Does he threaten them?
Ed Rollins: Well, I think he's not their candidate. You know some of them obviously are with McCain. Some of them are obviously with Romney. And I think at the end of the day Mike is a guy who basically was a very effective governor.
You can look at his record. It's a record of accomplishment. He didn't use the governor's office to just purely run for president. He wanted to fix mistakes and do things that are meaningful. And I think the thing they challenge him on is not really about his record.
CBSNews.com: But, as you know, Romney is running a number of attack ads in Iowa about your candidate's record. The latest is focused on crime-and Huckabee's pardons and commutations. And Huckabee's trying to turn that around by saying, the only reason Romney didn't issue any is that he's so political. Do you think the voters are going to buy that?
Ed Rollins: Well, I think to a certain extent the governor has had to explain what it is that he did. I mean, I think most people don't realize that everybody who's in prison in Arkansas has the option of appealing to the governor to get their sentence commuted or pardoned. It's an automatic state law, which it isn't in other places.
Most places the initiative comes from the governor or the president or what have you. But in Arkansas it's a state law that prisoners actually get to have that right. More than 8,000 applied to have their sentences commuted.
Mike read every single one. He made decisions on people that he thought had basically been rehabilitated. It wasn't like he opened up the prisons and sent everybody home. And I don't think anybody's ever said that.
No, it's about statistics. And there's a lot of statistics on Romney that we could fire back on, but we've chosen at this point in time not to do that. We certainly reserve that right.
CBSNews.com: What's your view of Romney's record?
Ed Rollins: The irony to me is that if Romney thought he was such a great governor, why he is not talking about being a governor? Why didn't he run for a second term? He was losing badly [in the polls] to a couple of Democrats.
He spent most of his last year out of state campaigning. He made it very clear in the New York Times, even before he'd ever been elected to an office, he wanted to run for president. And after having been defeated for Senate in 1994, I think he just basically was out looking for an office to get a hold of.
And the day he got inaugurated he started running for president. He's not the first man to ever do that, but I think Mike Huckabee tried to be a good governor and fix the problems of Arkansas.
CBSNews.com: And so what's your opinion of Romney not issuing any pardons or commutations?
Ed Rollins: My view is it was a political decision. I think Romney basically has changed his position on many, many things because he sees it as more politically doable. It's like you take a pollster and you sit down and say, "Tell me what the primary voters want." Not what I've done in the past. "Tell me what the primary voters want and that's what I'll do."
You know he shifts his positions on so many things. And to a certain extent, he's somewhat misleading. He said on Meet the Press last weekend he got the NRA endorsement when he ran [for governor]. It turns out he didn't. So there's just all kinds of little things that he spins.
And he's got a good campaign team. And obviously they thought they had this thing in the bag months ago. And they've spent an exorbitant sum of his own money, not money that he's raised. And I think he sees Mike as a very serious threat.
CBSNews.com: What's your reaction to the photo that came out this week of Mitt Romney at the Planned Parenthood fundraiser in 1994?
Ed Rollins: I mean all these guys have said, "Well, that's where I was then and that's why I'm in a different place today. And I made mistakes. I did this. I did that."
You know, at the end of the day, usually people develop their ideology before they get to be 60 years old. It's just all so political at this point in time.
CBSNews.com: But the Romney people would argue that Ronald Reagan, whom you served as political director and campaign manager, changed his positions.
Ed Rollins: Let me tell you the Ronald Reagan story. The Ronald Reagan story which they have used over and over again is totally untrue. First of all, Roe vs. Wade had not occurred yet [during his early years as governor]. Ronald Reagan was never pro-choice.
Ronald Reagan signed a law that allowed women who had had psychiatric damage and were suicidal to have an abortion. He thought it was about maybe 300 a year, which is what he was told. You know, it turned out to be a very significant abortion bill because a lot of women just went and got a sign off from a psychiatrist.
Ronald Reagan was opposed to that from day one. He was very upset about that. So I mean I find real fault with Romney basically saying, "Ronald Reagan did this. Ronald Reagan did that." I mean I remember him basically saying he wasn't for Ronald Reagan. He belittled Ronald Reagan in '94 when he ran against Kennedy.
CBSNews.com:A lot of people have referred to Governor Huckabee, some of them in Arkansas, as a pro-life, pro-gun liberal. They say that he raised a number of taxes. He raised spending. Do you think that the reason many members of the Republican establishment are against Governor Huckabee is that he's not the same kind of fiscal conservative as Dick Cheney or George W. Bush?
Ed Rollins: Well, first of all neither of those guys are fiscal conservatives. I mean Cheney was a good vote when he was in the Congress, but they certainly haven't been setting the room on fire vetoing bills or being good conservatives on fiscal matters. I think Mike Huckabee tried to solve the problems of the state of Arkansas.
You know one of the things that he had to do was fix the educational system. The state Supreme Court ordered him to raise $300 million to add an additional $300 million to education. The voters in the state had voted for a highway program that was totally unfunded. He went forth and made it an issue. And then the voters themselves voted for a three cent increase in taxes.
He cut income taxes. At the end of the day the story that's not told is this is a guy who inherited a $250 million deficit. And, at the end of the day, he left $850 million in the treasury.
CBSNews.com: And another controversy that's bubbled up over after the release of Huckabee's Christmas ad is why would he say, Christ? And this comes after he said several years ago that it's the responsibility of elected officials to "take back this nation for Christ." He says Christ again in the ad.
Why would he make the decision to exclude a number of Americans--Jews, Muslims, atheists--who aren't Christians?
Ed Rollins: Well, I think first of all the celebration of Christmas is the celebration of Christ's birth. There are billions of people in the world who celebrate Christmas. It's a national holiday.
He is a very strong supporter of Israel. He's been there nine times. He gives an incredible speech on that. I think he respect other people's holidays. But for the vast majority of people in the Christmas season, it's about Christmas. And I think that's what he was saying.
At this point in time let's not be trashing each other. Let's basically stop and spend time with our families and what have you. And it's one of the great holidays of all time that most people have great memories of. So he's not anti-Jews, he's not anti-Muslims, he's not anti-anything else. It's just very pro-Christian Christmas.
CBSNews.com: Does Governor Huckabee have to win Iowa in order to be the nominee?
Ed Rollins: I think Iowa's very important to him. And I think the bottom line is that we think we're going to win Iowa. I don't think we started out expecting to win anything, but I think this is what's created a great buzz.
And I think, to a certain extent, that's where we're putting a lot of our energy. We'd be terribly disappointed--I mean, I think it becomes harder for us to go beyond that, but I think at this point in time if for some reason we didn't win it, which I certainly have no reason to think we're not going to, we're not a multi-millionaire that can spend $100 million of our own money.
We've got to have momentum. We have to keep that momentum. We have to convince people as we're starting that we have a real chance of winning this thing and going all the way. And I think that it's important to win Iowa.
CBSNews.com: What's your reason-at this point in your life-for joining the campaign?
Ed Rollins: Well, I like him. You know I saw a lot of Reagan in him. And from my perspective I know everybody in this race. Everybody has strengths and everybody has weaknesses.
Many are friends of mine. But I think in Mike Huckabee I saw a guy who over the long haul would become the most viable candidate with the best opportunity to win. And to be a good president because of his ability to communicate, which I think is so very critical and somewhat missing from the present incumbent.
Ed Rollins is national campaign chairman of Huckabee for President. Rollins has worked for four Republican presidents--including as Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign manager, as deputy chief of staff, as head of both the White House Office of Political Affairs and the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. He also served as Co-Chairman of the campaign arm of House Republicans. As a consultant, Rollins worked for New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, Rep. George Nethercutt, Rep. Michael Huffington, and several African-American GOP candidates whom he has counseled for free. As a public relations adviser, he has worked for dozens of Fortune 500 companies in the US and abroad. Previously a political analyst for CBS News, NBC News, and CNN, Rollins is married and lives in New York.
By Brian Goldsmith