November 29, 1993 12:00 PM

WHEN POLITICAL CONSULTANT ED ROLLINS answered the door at his home in Alexandria, Va., last week, it was the pizza delivery boy. In the box was an ad that prompted Rollins to do something he hadn’t done in a week of virtual seclusion: he laughed. “He said, ‘Look, it’s not all over,’ ” Rollins’s wife, Sherrie, recalls.” ‘They’re looking for drivers and they’ll pay $14 an hour.’ ”

On second thought, though, the pizza people might decide Edward J. Rollins, 50, is a bit too reckless to put on the road. After all, it took him just minutes earlier this month to transform himself from Republican party hero to political pariah with a few ill-considered remarks. Explaining to reporters at a breakfast meeting in Washington how he had engineered a remarkable come-from-behind victory for Republican Christine Todd Whitman—making her the first woman governor of New Jersey—Rollins said the campaign had handed out 1500,000 in “walking-around money” to black ministers. “We went into the black churches and basically said to the ministers…’Do you have a special project? We see you have already endorsed [Democratic Gov. Jim] Florio. That’s fine. But don’t get up in the Sunday pulpit…and say it is your moral obligation to vote Jim Florio.’ ”

No sooner had the story broken than an angry Whitman—her narrow, 26,000-vote victory suddenly besmirched—vehemently denied any wrongdoing, and Rollins quickly issued a statement saying his comments were “an exaggeration that turned out to be inaccurate.” But last week a federal judge in Newark ruled that his remarks, “true or false,” were sufficient grounds for the court to look into the election, and Whitman announced that she would agree to a new vote if any irregularities were discovered.

Criticized by colleagues for publically airing what some consider the unspoken practice of payoffs and muzzled by his attorney, Rollins, who has a reputation for candor that is unusual in his profession, holed up in his house with Sherrie, 35, his wife of six years. “He feels awful about this furor he has created,” she says. “He did not intend to hurt anyone. He feels so badly for Christie. He did not want to taint her victory.”

But Sherrie also admits there is a sense of déjà vu about Rolling’s gaffe. He has a history of self-destructive episodes.

“He goes through this love-hate thing with politics,” she says. “He doesn’t want to play the game. Maybe unconsciously he wants out.” Some of his comments have hurt her career too. In 1992, for example, Rollins, who had masterminded Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide, infuriated Republicans by joining Ross Perot’s presidential campaign after deciding the two-party system needed to be shaken up. His defection made it almost impossible for Sherrie to continue her thriving career as a top assistant to George Bush. “I blew up my own career and my wife’s,” Rollins told PEOPLE after he quit Perot’s campaign in disgust just six weeks after he’d started. “I blew up our lives.”

The question now is whether he has blown them up again. Already he has lost his job as a commentator for Today. “This [latest episode] is difficult,” says Sherrie, now a vice president at U.S. News & World Report. But, she insists, “I would rather go through this with him than without him. It is so irritating to hear people say the marriage will never survive.”

The son of a shipyard worker, Rollins grew up in public housing in Vallejo, Calif., and first got involved in politics as a student at San Jose State. Since then he has managed numerous state and federal campaigns and worked in the Nixon and Ford administrations before becoming a top Reagan political adviser. Now his future in politics looks bleak. Sherrie says, half-jokingly, that he may buy the tavern he has been dreaming about all his life, a place where no one is allowed to discuss politics. “Ed said to me the other night, ‘I’ve spent 20 years making enemies. I want to spend the next 20 making friends,'” she says. “Maybe it’s time to buy the bar. Maybe this is a turn in the road for good.”


GARRY CLIFFORD in Washington

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