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Once rising with Crist, now out of work

Not all eyes were on Gov. Crist as he announced his independent run. Campaign manager Eric Eikenberg said that day he’d quit.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Not all eyes were on Gov. Crist as he announced his independent run. Campaign manager Eric Eikenberg said that day he’d quit.

ST. PETERSBURG — He was there but not there, exhausted and unshaven, pacing on the periphery of Straub Park while a crowd grew for the blockbuster announcement.

As Gov. Charlie Crist switched from Republican to independent in the race for U.S. Senate, Eric Eikenberg had a quiet announcement of his own.

He was quitting.

Today is Eikenberg's last day on the Crist payroll. Thirty-four years old, a father of three and unemployed for the first time since college.

"It's an anxious feeling," he said. "I have great respect for the many Floridians today who are seeking work."

Campaign work is inherently risky, but many months ago, Crist was a star in the Republican Party. Victory was certain. Eikenberg left the governor's office, where he was chief of staff, to become campaign manager. The job paid $15,000 a month.

Then came Marco Rubio. More conservative than Crist, Rubio tapped growing dissatisfaction among the Republican base and chipped away at the governor's lead until it was clear Crist could not recover.

To survive, Crist abandoned the GOP. Eikenberg decided he could not do the same.

He has made his living in Republican politics and, philosophical objections aside, it could have been damaging to his career to continue.

"I had to do what is best for me and my family," he said a day after Crist's April 29 announcement. "He's my friend and I feel like we've had a good run together."

Eikenberg stayed on for two weeks as Crist worked on building a staff for his campaign as an independent.

Now Eikenberg is having to update his resume, which has gone untouched since he joined Crist after the 2006 gubernatorial election. There will forever be an asterisk next to the line: Campaign manager, Charlie Crist for U.S. Senate, October 2009-May 2010.

A Broward County native, he started in politics after graduating from American University in 1998, working on now-U.S. Sen. George LeMieux's state House bid and then as campaign manager and chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale.

Things have been tough before. LeMieux lost. Shaw won by only 599 votes. But "Ike," as he is known to some, has gained a reputation as a steady and competent politico. He looks older than he is and carries himself that way, too.

"He was a respected player in Republican politics before Charlie Crist and he will be after Charlie Crist," said Republican strategist and friend David Johnson. "I'd go into battle with Eric Eikenberg any day."

Like other unemployed Floridians, Eikenberg faces the pangs of uncertainty, the nagging question "Will anyone want me?" and ordinary worries of providing for his family.

"If I didn't have my faith and know all things work out for the good, I'd probably be a lot more stressed," Eikenberg said, plenty of stress still evident in his voice. "I know you can't go on that alone. You've got to actually go out and pursue employment."

A week before Crist announced his switch, the hypothetical was raised in a meeting at campaign headquarters in Tallahassee. "I told him I can't continue," Eikenberg said. "He just flat out said, 'You're my friend' " and blessed the parting.

The pressure of a flailing campaign and Crist's possible life-changing move took on alarming forms. During a recent community event in Tallahassee, Eikenberg lost sight of his 2-year-old daughter, Rebecca, for 15 minutes.

Eikenberg and his wife, Tonya, have two other children, Eric Jr., who is 3, and Patrick Henry, who is about to turn 1.

"As much as it was a difficult decision, she was supportive," Eikenberg said of his wife, who stays at home to raise the kids.

Last week, to make up for all the missed evenings at home, Eikenberg loaded the clan into their Chevy Suburban and drove to Atlanta to see the Braves take on the Houston Astros.

Talking with a reporter, Eikenberg is sensitive about coming across as a charity case or offensive to Crist.

"I think the world of him," Crist said Thursday. "He's a great man and a great friend and will continue to be."

Eikenberg acknowledges the campaign could have done things differently but resists a post-mortem other than defending Crist's decision to embrace President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan, which came as the state faced a massive revenue shortfall.

"Americans are upset about the direction of this country," Eikenberg said. "I don't think you can pin it to one question, 'Well what went wrong?' "

After his last day at the office today, Eikenberg will have friends over to celebrate Patrick Henry's 1st birthday. On Monday, the job search begins.

Eikenberg said he is considering leaving campaign work, putting his college degree — a mashup of politics, economics and communications — to work in another field, perhaps the policy side of government.

"There's nothing like the energy of a campaign, don't get me wrong," he said. "But it can wear you out."

In the distance, he sees a return.

"I hope one day to find a community in the state, set roots, raise my kids and to offer myself up for public office. It's an admirable profession, and I've had great models to watch."

Times staff writer Katie Sanders contributed to this report.

Help Wanted

To read previous Help Wanted stories and join the discussion on the blog, go to links.tampabay.com.

Once rising with Crist, now out of work 05/13/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 13, 2010 8:26pm]
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