By PERRY BACON JR.
Dean and Trippi started a new style of campaigning. Will the movement outlast the candidate?
If you wanted to lead an army, Joe Trippi wouldn't be the first person you'd think of to run it.
Maybe it is his style, or lack of it. He would shuffle about in worn-out shoes, wrinkled pants and ensembles that never matched, armed at all times with a Diet Coke and a vocal, if rambling, opinion.
Howard Dean's campaign manager doesn't seem to go an hour without talking to a reporter, and for weeks wore a microphone around-the-clock for a documentary on him that was scheduled to air on CNN this spring.
Yet it was Trippi, a veteran political strategist who had previously worked on a number of losing presidential campaigns, who came up with many of the ideas that gave the Dean campaign its pizazz, back before everyone else copied them: blogs, house parties and Meetups, as well as a Web tool called Get Local that allows people to set up campaign events in their communities.
All of that helped give Democrats from all over the country the power to elevate from obscurity the former Governor of tiny Vermont. Political operatives from everywhere traveled to Burlington, Vt., to hear the good news from the frumpy, loquacious Trippi himself.
But the Dean campaign will now have to go on without him. After disappointing losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, and with his campaign almost broke, Dean sacked Trippi last week as part of a staff shake-up that is meant to centralize an operation once proud of letting a thousand volunteers bloom.
A day after finishing 12 points behind John Kerry in New Hampshire, Dean went home to Vermont in part to rest and have time to attend his son Paul's hockey match that night.
But at a half-hour meeting at noon at a Burlington law firm, Dean informed Trippi that he would bring on Roy Neel, a longtime aide to former Vice President Al Gore and a telecommunications lobbyist who had served as White House deputy chief of staff in the Clinton Administration. Dean wanted and expected Trippi to accept the demotion and stay on as a senior adviser, but the aide surprised the Governor by bowing out, and later told MSNBC in an tearful interview that the campaign couldn't run with "two captains."
While Dean did not publicly criticize Trippi, Dean's advisers were upset that the campaign had spent much of the record $41 million it raised last year by advertising in states, like New Mexico, long before their primaries. One ad even aired in Austin, Texas, to coincide with a visit by President Bush to his home state.
Staffers have been asked to forgo paychecks for two weeks, and the campaign has so little money that it isn't running ads in states with primaries on Feb. 3. Some advisers to the campaign also complained that Trippi had led the candidate away from himself, turning a pragmatic politician who did not do much shouting into a candidate easily caricatured as a fire-breathing liberal.
One former Dean aide said that when she asked Trippi how she could help the campaign, Trippi replied, "You just tell [Dean] to do what I want him to do."
Dean's fervent supporters often came to the campaign through the Web operation Trippi created, and they posted hundreds of laudatory farewells within an hour of learning of his departure.
But they want to win too. "I wasn't voting for Trippi," Melissa Sternberg, an Austin artist, said. "He had great ideas and got the campaign off to a great start." At the same time they praised Trippi, many bloggers said they hoped the reformed campaign would improve its ads, which were designed by Trippi's firm and roundly disliked by the troops for being too negative about other candidates and too weak in promoting Dean's record.
In an unusual move, Neel sent out a memo on Friday publicly outlining a new strategy of slowly and steadily accumulating a share of delegates all the way through the primary season. In the memo, he made it clear the campaign is not planning to win any of the Feb. 3 primary states but instead is pushing to come out ahead four days later in Michigan and Washington, where Dean has had campaign staff on the ground for much longer than his rivals.
Under this scenario, the official comeback would begin Feb. 17 in Wisconsin. After winning that primary, Neel said, the campaign would emerge as the only alternative to Kerry and could then capture victories on March 2, when there are primaries in delegate-rich states like California and New York.
The defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire—and the turmoil they created at Dean headquarters in Burlington—have produced a debate that fits a campaign lit by a prairie fire. Followers of Dean see themselves, and their connection, as the campaign itself, so they are asking themselves, Where do we go if Dean doesn't get the nomination?
In e-mails to one another, some say they will move to the "anybody but Bush" camp and continue to raise money and work for whichever candidate emerges as the Democratic nominee. "This $500 billion deficit is going to be ours to pay," says Kendal Killian, a 25-year-old student and waiter in Minneapolis, Minn., who has supported Dean. "This is our generation of kids over there in Iraq dying. This is our deal. We're inheriting this. And we need to take control."
But just as many others say only Dean got them interested in politics and they're not going to throw themselves into campaigning for the nominee just because he has a D beside his name. Charlie Grapski, a doctoral student at the University of Florida, says he could "hold his nose" and vote for Kerry, but that would be the extent of his involvement. "There's nobody in the race [for whom] I will do what I did for Howard Dean, because they're all part of the politics of the past. They're part of the problem."
But the Dean campaign is also showing signs that, as a self-invented community, it has a life of its own. If Dean doesn't succeed, Grapski says he and other bloggers he met while he was volunteering for Dean in Iowa are already planning a website and an e-mail list for after the campaign ends so they can stay in touch with other Deaniacs and raise money for candidates they discover in the future.
"We understand we have to build ourselves as a movement regardless of the outcome of the elections," says Grapski. Others are not so sure they want to stay tied to one another without the candidate. Charles Goin, a mechanical engineer, actually plans to run for Congress himself in Virginia using the things he learned.
Even if the Dean faithful are forced to disperse, one thing is clear for now: they couldn't elect him just on their own. Only about 600,000 people have signed up at the campaign's website. Even if all of them were active in the campaign, they would constitute a support base about the size of the population of Vermont.
In the meantime, the political establishment has no intention of letting Dean supporters drift away. Representatives from the Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.) have visited the Dean campaign to hear its ideas and on their own have started blogs, Meetups and special drives to solicit small donations.
"They're already on top of it, and that's the first time I've seen the D.N.C. on top of anything for a while," says Donna Brazile, Gore's former campaign manager.
Political consultants as far away as West Africa have contacted Dean's Web team. The office of the Prime Minister of Canada has called twice.
Trippi may have left Dean's campaign, but his ideas have already been stolen, which guarantees them a life in this campaign cycle—and probably guarantees him a few lucrative consulting deals.
—With reporting by Marc Hequet/St. Paul, Hilary Hylton/Austin, Karen Tumulty/Washington and Eli Sanders/Seattle
Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.