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Divide and Bicker

The Dean Campaign's Hip, High-Tech Image Hid a Nasty Civil War

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 29, 2004; Page D01

The feuding and backbiting that plagued the Howard Dean campaign had turned utterly poisonous. Behind the facade of a successful political operation, senior officials plotted against each other, complained about the candidate and developed one searing doubt.

Dean, they concluded, did not really want to be president.

Howard Dean campaigning in New Hampshire four days before a costly loss in that state's Jan. 27 primary. (Laurie Swope For The Washington Post)

In different conversations and in different ways, according to several people who worked with him, Dean said at the peak of his popularity late last year that he never expected to rise so high, that he didn't like the intense scrutiny, that he had just wanted to make a difference. "I don't care about being president," he said. Months earlier, as his candidacy was taking off, he told a colleague: "The problem is, I'm now afraid I might win."

As Dean was swallowed by the bubble that envelops every major candidate, he allowed his campaign to sink into a nasty civil war that crippled decision-making and devastated morale. In the end, say some of those who uprooted their lives for him, these tensions hastened the implosion that brought Dean down.

The polarization revolved around two people: Joe Trippi, the rumpled, passionate, sometimes headstrong campaign manager who drew rock-star coverage in the press, and Kate O'Connor, the quiet, shrewd, low-profile Vermont confidante who never left Dean's side.

Trippi, 47, said it was "hard for a campaign manager to function" amid the "infighting" when he was constantly being undermined. He said O'Connor was trying to help Dean, "but there were two worldviews of what was best for him, and those two worlds kept colliding.

"We would have served the governor better if it hadn't existed, but it did, and it did play a role in our not making it. Those differences were a disservice to him. But he is the candidate and had a lot of say."

O'Connor, 39, joking about her "evil" reputation, said that "my mind boggles at some of this stuff. . . . You don't manage Howard Dean, and that was a problem for some people who came in and wanted to manage him. I understood that. Other people just didn't understand that. . . . You learn who the loyal people are. You learn who your friends are."

Interviews with more than a dozen Dean advisers -- portions of which were not for attribution because many did not want to be viewed as disloyal to their former boss -- produced a picture far different from the public image of a hip, high-tech operation of dedicated Deaniacs.

It was, instead, a dysfunctional political family, filled with tales of blocking access to the candidate, neutralizing internal rivals, trying to penalize reporters deemed unfriendly. And some of its members just plain despised each other.

The Discord Coalition

Every presidential campaign has an ambitious strategist, a James Carville or Karl Rove, pulling the strings back at headquarters, and an unassuming body man (or woman) traveling with the candidate, a loyalist who can read his moods, cater to his needs and watch his back. And there are often tensions between "the office" and "the road." For Trippi and O'Connor, the sparring began early and never let up.

When Dean, once dismissed as a gadfly candidate, was surging to the front of a crowded Democratic field in September, things came to a head.

O'Connor, according to a staffer who saw the e-mail, wrote a friend that she wanted to get rid of Trippi and that she felt like quitting herself except that she needed to protect Dean. This followed a clash in which Trippi and other top political advisers helped craft a major Boston speech in which Dean was to denounce special interests -- only to have him toss out most of the speech after O'Connor expressed her opposition.

O'Connor, who said she had "possibly" sent the e-mail but did not recall it, said Dean felt the speech wasn't suitable for a large rally. But she confirmed that she was "uncomfortable" with the campaign's move toward "harping on the special interests. . . . I thought it was not a message that was true to who Howard Dean was." While she offered her opinions, "the thought that I could manipulate him is just absurd."

In October, as much of the media and political establishment began to view the former governor as unstoppable, Trippi was so frustrated by the mounting strife that he threatened to resign, he and other officials confirmed. Trippi asked his campaign allies to join an "intervention" with Dean to get things changed, but they told him he was being unrealistic. Trippi's partner in a consulting firm, Steve McMahon, and Trippi's wife, Kathy Lash, a campaign aide, talked him out of quitting. But he made a pact with his wife that, win or lose, he would quit the day after the New Hampshire primary.

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