As she made her way into a recent gathering for Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume, longtime Montgomery County political activist Dorothy Davidson spotted a face familiar from TV.
"Are you who I think you are?" she asked the rumpled figure who had been unfolding metal chairs in the auditorium of the Chevy Chase Women's Democratic Club.
"Who do you think I am?" he replied, a loose grin appearing amid Joe Trippi's five o'clock shadow.
At first blush, it might have seemed an unexpected place to find the former manager of Howard Dean's presidential bid. Two years ago, as the former Vermont governor was surging in the race for the Democratic nomination, Trippi was heralded for using the Internet to reinvent campaigning -- and garnering nearly as much media attention as his boss.
On this night last month, he hovered behind a crowd of 80 people, serving as an unpaid adviser to a 2006 Senate candidate whom many of Maryland's political elites have written off.
But that, Trippi said, is exactly why he finds Mfume so appealing.
"What drives me, really, is changing things, not accepting the conventional wisdom," Trippi said. "I hate it when somebody says it can't be done. I know there are people saying Mfume can't win. But why? Tell me why."
It is easy to forget that when Dean started running in 2002, he, too, was largely dismissed -- as an obscure governor who would never be able to raise the millions needed to compete for president.
That was long before Dean rode a wave of antiwar sentiment to the front of the Democratic pack. It was long before his campaign turned the Internet into a catalyst that helped yield more than $50 million in donations.
And, it should be said, it was long before Dean's campaign cratered before the Iowa caucuses, the "Dean scream" that followed and Trippi's departure after another loss to Sen. John F. Kerry the following week in New Hampshire.
Trippi, 49, speaks fondly of the early Dean days. But he is quick to point out that his attraction to underdogs long predates the governor -- and that some candidates for whom he worked not only were brought to the brink, but won.
Trippi showed up unannounced at Jim Moran's office. It was 1990, and Moran was mayor of Alexandria, gearing up to run for Congress against a well-known Republican incumbent.
"He came in with a beat-up suitcase and looking like he'd slept in his suit," Moran (D-Va.) said. "I just assumed he was a homeless guy. Joe said he wanted to be my media guy, that he really needed to prove himself."
Trippi had just parted ways with the firm of Doak & Shrum, where he got his start in media consulting. Moran had been looking at such firms for his race but decided to gamble on Trippi. It turned out to be one of his better decisions, said Moran, who called Trippi one of politics' most creative minds. Particularly effective, he said, was a Trippi ad that showed women behind bars to highlight his opponents' view that abortion should be criminalized.
"He likes a challenge," Moran said. "Partly because he doesn't like working for the establishment firms and partly because the establishment doesn't like working with him, Joe winds up with the underdogs. He is out of the mold. He has the characteristics of a genius, not all of which are positive."
Within the Dean campaign, even some of Trippi's admirers saw him as a mad scientist more devoted to answering bloggers on the campaign Web site than tending to the nuts and bolts of staffing and scheduling.
Trippi's resume today is filled with top-tier candidates whom he has helped, mostly with media. Among them: Walter F. Mondale, Gary Hart and Richard A. Gephardt. But he speaks most fondly of those such as Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.), who in 2002 as a 10-year incumbent faced off against a 20-year Republican incumbent in a clash borne of redistricting.
"You can call Tim Holden up," Trippi said. "I slept on the couch in his campaign headquarters for the last month of the election. I was not going to let that campaign go down."
Holden agreed that Trippi slept on the campaign office couch. "He also slept in my home and went door-to-door in the district. He was 24-7 from the moment he signed on."
Asked if he plans to show the same devotion to Mfume, Trippi did not hesitate. "I don't know how more personally invested I could be in this race. I've been doing this for six months with no pay."
Monday morning, Trippi was among the first to arrive in Mfume's second-story campaign headquarters in an aging Baltimore office building. Armed with a pair of 20-ounce Diet Pepsis, an apple Skoal tin and chargers for his cell phone and BlackBerry, he settled into a conference room where Mfume and another half-dozen advisers -- most also unpaid -- would gather for a rambling weekly strategy meeting.
Trippi's seat was secured through a combination of serendipity and a longstanding desire to work on a race in Maryland, where he has lived since 1985, in Annapolis and now on the Eastern Shore.
Years ago, Trippi said, he happened to read Mfume's autobiography. The book lays bare the kind of things most political consultants would prefer stay in the closet, including Mfume's involvement with gangs during his impoverished upbringing in Baltimore and his five children out of wedlock. But it is also a story of triumph, as Mfume eventually turned his life around, got elected to Congress and became president of the NAACP.
In March, after Mfume became the first candidate to enter the race to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D), Trippi gave Mfume a call. "I told him I didn't care if he wouldn't pay me," Trippi said. "He asked how fast I could get there."
What was planned as an hour-long lunch the following day turned into a much longer affair, as the two talked about progressive politics and campaigns for several hours.
Since the Dean campaign, Trippi has pursued several endeavors, including a fellowship at Harvard University. More recently, he helped coordinate the international Live 8 concerts, held to draw attention to the issue of debt relief, rallying support over the Internet. He continues to juggle several projects. During Mfume's Montgomery event, Trippi stepped out to lead a conference call for political bloggers with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). The subject: the then-pending Supreme Court nomination of John G. Roberts Jr.
Mfume said that he is surprised Trippi has "dropped so much of what he was doing" to help and that the aid of a "war-tested" consultant has proved valuable. "Campaigns leap from crisis to crisis, high point to low point, and Joe has provided a voice of calm," Mfume said.
Monday's meeting began with an acknowledgment from those around the table that Mfume's fundraising needs to pick up in coming months.
His lagging totals are one reason that Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin has emerged as the front-runner in the Democratic primary. As of May, when figures were last posted, Cardin had raised more than $1 million in the previous quarter compared with Mfume's $134,000. Many of the state's elected officials also have been quick to rally around Cardin.
"We ain't going to do the inside money," Trippi told the group as he advocated for alternative events known as "10 for 10's." The idea, which other advisers attribute to Trippi, is for supporters to bring $10 as well as 10 friends.
The goal, Trippi explained, is to get 300,000 people across Maryland to give $10 each. That would amount to $3 million. "The money's great, but it's more than that," Trippi said. "If you get 300,000 people involved in the campaign, you're probably going to win the primary. That's totally possible."
Trippi acknowledged that Mfume's campaign got off to an unsteady start, hurt in part by allegations of favoritism during his tenure at the NAACP. But he offered an optimistic take on his chances, noting that a half-dozen candidates are now getting into the race. The conventional wisdom is that they are more likely to cut into Cardin's base than Mfume's, which is made up of African Americans and other traditionally liberal voters. That would make it easier for Mfume, the only black candidate, to emerge.
"We're about a year out, and we've got plenty of time," Trippi said. "We have only one direction to go: up."