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Job of running Crist's campaign requires a 'maestro'

Eric Eikenberg is wise beyond his 33 years. So why did he just trade a high-stress job for a very high-stress job?

The old job was chief of staff to Gov. Charlie Crist, a punishing grind of 14-hour days and an endlessly chirping cell phone.

That job came with a nice, likable boss, but a guy so obsessed with raising money for a U.S. Senate race he may not have noticed his administration was going off track. As his state sank deeper into a morass of record housing foreclosures and 11 percent unemployment, Crist cheerfully hosted events touting "Hispanic Heritage Month" or "Small Business Month."

The new job: campaign manager for Crist's U.S. Senate race.

Crist has somehow managed to turn a cakewalk into a competitive race against the insurgent Miami Republican, former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who is now at least respectable in polls against a governor who should be ahead by 50 points. The conventional wisdom in Tallahassee is that all Rubio needs to turn Crist into toast is an effusive endorsement from former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Eikenberg is no-nonsense and hard working, a good listener with a dry wit — and has three kids under age 3. His simple task: make sure Crist wins.

"It's like managing the Yankees. If you don't win the World Series, it's considered a bad year," says Brian Ballard, the lobbyist and former gubernatorial chief of staff whose clients include the Yankees. "But if anybody's up to it, Eric is."

Eikenberg is taking on a job that comes with a handy basis for comparison: the imposing footsteps of his mentor, George LeMieux, who's now Florida's junior U.S. senator.

Back in 1998, Eikenberg, then 22 years old, managed the state House campaign of LeMieux in Fort Lauderdale. They lost. They moved on.

LeMieux bonded with Crist and became chief of staff in the Attorney General's Office, and Eikenberg went to work for Republican U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale. "Ike" managed Shaw's brutal 2000 re-election campaign that ended in a 599-vote victory.

When Charlie Crist won the governorship in 2006, he anointed campaign manager LeMieux as the "maestro" of his victory and appointed LeMieux as his chief of staff.

LeMieux then hired Eikenberg as a deputy. When LeMieux left after one year, Crist replaced him with — who else — Eikenberg.

Eikenberg and LeMieux grew up in Coral Springs, one of those master development megasubdivision towns that sprouted up all over Florida in the 1960s. Both were Republicans in the state's most heavily Democratic county, Broward.

The Senate race has a very different feel from Crist's 2006 run for governor. Back then, he was a fresh face on the scene with no real record as attorney general to nitpick.

LeMieux had the luxury of a "24-7" Crist — a full-time candidate with no distractions in his life, and no nagging news stories about neglecting his duties as attorney general to raise money. Now Eikenberg has to juggle Crist's campaign with his responsibilities as governor while also being mindful that Crist is now married and likes to spend time with his wife, Carole.

When you get right down to it, it's a simple assignment for Eikenberg: Just be the second coming of the maestro.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Job of running Crist's campaign requires a 'maestro' 10/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 23, 2009 10:01pm]
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