By Chris Cillizza
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
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."
For John Edwards, it was a chance to fix his struggling campaign, which had seen the departure of a number of his original senior staff members, including 2004 campaign manager Nick Baldick. Former congressman David Bonior (Mich.) had been serving as the campaign manager, but his skills were clearly more as a surrogate than a strategist.
Officially, Trippi has been described as part of a trio of advisers that includes pollster Harrison Hickman and longtime adviser Jonathan Prince. But the evidence seemed to suggest that it was Trippi who now had the Edwardses' trust.
In July, the campaign brought on Paul Blank to handle the day-to-day operations of the campaign and Chris Kofinis to head up communications. Both Blank and Kofinis have ties to Trippi: Blank was political director in Dean's campaign before joining Wake Up Wal-Mart, where Trippi served as a consultant. Kofinis was communications director at Wake Up Wal-Mart. At the same time, it was announced that Bonior's role would evolve into serving as a stand-in for the candidate, though he would retain the title of campaign manager.
Then, in mid-August, Marius Penczner, who had served as Edwards's lead media consultant since late 2003, parted ways with the campaign. Trippi, a media consultant by training, took over crafting Edwards's ads, with an assist from Prince.
Trippi declined to discuss his role in the campaign's day-to-day operations. "I hope that I have brought a better focus to the campaign and his message -- and helped better define the differences between the change John Edwards would bring to Washington [versus] the business as usual candidacy of Hillary Clinton," he said.
Asked to explain Trippi's rise within the Edwards inner circle, a former staffer said: "Two words: Elizabeth Edwards." The source, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, added: "I think Trippi's influence grows daily, and because that influence is Elizabeth-sanctioned it makes it all the more powerful."
Although Trippi plays down the closeness of his relationship with Elizabeth Edwards -- the two have spoken directly only five or six times during the campaign, he said -- it is clear that they share the same ideas about aggressive campaigning.
Take Elizabeth Edwards's decision to confront conservative commentator Ann Coulter during Coulter's appearance on MSNBC's "Hardball." It was Trippi who gave her the number for the show's control room.
Or take the video that Trippi produced for the CNN-YouTube debate that poked fun at the media's obsession with how much John Edwards paid for a haircut. Trippi said Elizabeth Edwards "really liked" that video -- a phenomenon on the Web.
And, in contrast to her husband's campaigns in 2004, when she played a somewhat peripheral role, Elizabeth Edwards often takes the fight to her husband's opponents more aggressively than he does. She was the first to broach the idea that her husband, and not Clinton, is the strongest advocate for women in the race, and she most pointedly questioned whether Obama's voting record in the Senate matched his antiwar rhetoric before joining Congress.
Those familiar with the relationship between Trippi and Elizabeth Edwards offer several reasons for their alliance. One connection is over their health issues. Another is over the Internet. Trippi became interested in how it could be used in politics, and Elizabeth Edwards became fascinated with its power to create social connections while she dealt with her cancer.
As David Weinberger, an Internet strategist for Dean and part-time consultant to the Edwards campaign, wrote on the Huffington Post, "during times that could have crushed her -- that would have beaten most of us down -- she found strength in and with others, many on the Internet."
Others say Elizabeth Edwards sees this race as more a cause than a campaign, a belief that makes her and Trippi -- an unapologetic believer in the power of liberal ideals and the overthrow of "transactional politics" -- ideological soulmates.
It's that message -- a fiery, some say angry, populism -- that has drawn attention to John Edwards of late.
One Democratic consultant who has worked with Trippi said the common thread in the majority of the presidential campaigns with which Trippi has been involved is an outrage with the way Washington operates.
A former senior staffer for Dean's presidential campaign said, "Anyone that knows Joe could see a marked difference in the creation of the new John Edwards once Joe came aboard." Trippi, the staffer added, "is an incredibly powerful force on any campaign, and when given a malleable candidate he will have an enormous impact."
The Edwards campaign -- and many people formerly affiliated with it -- reject the notion that the candidate is anything but his own invention.
"This is who he is," Prince said, noting that as far back as his 1998 campaign against Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), Edwards was talking about fighting for the little guy and against special interests. In one ad during that race, Edwards said: "Insurance companies have plenty of lobbyists fighting for them. I don't want to be their senator. I want to be yours."
Prince agreed that the tone of the 2008 campaign is different than that of the 2004 race, explaining that "there is more intense emotion to it, more passion." But, he said, that change is due to Edwards's experiences as the vice presidential nominee, his work on the issue of poverty in 2005 and 2006, and the impact of his wife's cancer diagnosis and relapse. Those developments "make you look up close at what's important," Prince added.
Whoever is more responsible, the question for the campaign is whether it can turn what has been an insurgent effort into something more substantial. For Trippi, it's a question that lingers from Dean's cometlike trajectory.
"The way it ended in Iowa, no one knows if Joe was right or not," said a consultant who has worked with Trippi on past races.