THE GURUS | JOE TRIPPI
With Trippi's Rise, Some See a New John Edwards
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton may have a widening lead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but John Edwards is not about to give her a free ride.
"Instead of moving from primary mode to general election mode, why don't we have tell-the-truth mode, all the time, and not say something different one time than we say another time?" Edwards asked pointedly last week in New Hampshire.
From the day he announced his candidacy in New Orleans last December, Edwards has presented himself as an outsider, someone much different from the senator who was John F. Kerry's running mate in 2004. But in recent weeks he has launched a markedly more aggressive attack on what he says is Clinton's poll-tested commitment to the status quo, and the new tone to his campaign has coincided with the growing influence of the strategist behind Howard Dean's assault on the Democratic establishment four years ago -- Joe Trippi.
Those who know Edwards best insist that his campaign reflects his own life experiences, including his wife's ongoing battle with cancer, and that in hiring Trippi, a cult figure on the party's left for his role with Dean, Edwards has found someone who can translate his instincts into a coherent campaign message. Trailing Clinton and Barack Obama in the polls, Edwards is basing his campaign on a vision of bold change not shared by either senator.
"Trippi has made him more aggressive and tuned him in to the anger and passion of the Net roots," said Carter Eskew, a senior Democratic strategist not affiliated with any 2008 campaign.
While Trippi was described as a senior adviser when he joined the Edwards campaign in mid-April, he has become much more in the intervening six months: the de facto campaign manager, lead media consultant and -- perhaps most important -- trusted confidante of Elizabeth Edwards, whose influence in the campaign far exceeds that of the conventional candidate's wife.
By all accounts, Elizabeth Edwards and Trippi have developed a close relationship, beginning during their first meeting this spring at the Edwardses' home in Chapel Hill, N.C. An hour and a half into listening to the couple's pitch to join the campaign, Trippi suddenly flinched when his diabetic neuropathy -- a nerve disorder that sends pains shooting through his body at random intervals -- began bothering him. Elizabeth Edwards noticed. And when Trippi started talking about his illness, she told him that she suffers from the same condition.
Still, Trippi turned down the offer to join the campaign. "I told them there was no way I could do it again," Trippi recounted recently. "That I really liked them and really believed they were going to take on a broken system -- but I was not going to do it."
For decades Trippi has been a part of Democratic presidential politics, often working for long shots -- Rep. Richard A. Gephardt in 1988, Jerry Brown in 1992 -- and through a combination of sharp elbows and sharply defined messages transformed them into legitimate candidates.
As Dean went from an afterthought in the 2004 presidential race to the Democratic front-runner, Trippi's star rose with him. But when the former Vermont governor finished third in the Iowa caucuses, the campaign was essentially over, and Trippi was suddenly out of a job. And, many assumed, he was out of presidential politics -- a decision seemingly affirmed at his meeting with the Edwardses.
On March 22 all of that changed. In a televised news conference, Elizabeth Edwards announced that her breast cancer had returned but that her husband's campaign would continue. "I sat there in my house with my wife and my neuropathy firing away," Trippi recalled, "and just said, 'You know, I am not done either,' and I picked up the phone and offered to join the campaign."
In an entry on the Edwards campaign blog titled "I'm Signing On," Trippi announced his return. "I really thought that the 2004 presidential campaign would be the last I would be involved in," he wrote. But the decision by the Edwardses to continue the campaign in the face of the return of Elizabeth's cancer "made me realize that I wasn't done trying to make a difference either."