DES MOINES, Iowa – As an operative who has rustled up voters from Texas to Maine in campaigns past, Joe Trippi (search) knows it takes sweat to create opportunities in politics. This time, he saw opportunity staring him in the face from the soft glow of a computer screen.
Trippi's Internet savvy and penchant for old-fashioned political trench warfare have proved an effective combination in Howard Dean (search)'s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Dean's campaign manager has helped transform the little-known former Vermont governor into the party's leading contender, using computer-driven fund raising and unorthodox voter outreach as his hallmarks.
The Internet (search) has been a fixture of sorts in two previous presidential campaigns. But admirers say it took Trippi to capitalize on its explosive potential to spread word of mouth at the speed of bytes.
"He had the experience and the prescience to make it happen," Bill Carrick, a mentor and longtime associate, said recently. "He's a perfect out-of-the-box person for a campaign that started off like Howard's."
Now comes the true test. The Iowa caucuses (search) in just over a month launch the primary, and Trippi will be either a genius or gadfly when all the delegates are counted. If Dean captures the nomination, Trippi's skills and staying power will be tested against President Bush's formidable campaign machine on the biggest playing field.
Heady stuff for a 47-year-old, rumpled computer geek who has been on the losing end of a handful of Democratic campaigns, among them the unsuccessful White House bids of Edward Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Gary Hart and Dick Gephardt, a current Dean rival.
"Joe is kind of an unmade bed," said Tim Dickson, a Virginia-based political consultant who has known Trippi since the 1980s.
And he's something of a hothead, not unlike his boss, associates say. Several counterparts in rival campaigns have experienced Trippi's in-your-face style.
Trippi got his start in politics in 1979 when, 14 credit hours short of an aerospace engineering degree from San Jose State University, he quit school, left California for Iowa and began working for Kennedy. He'd been captivated by the Massachusetts senator's primary challenge of an incumbent Democratic president, Jimmy Carter.
Carrick recalled that late in the campaign, when the Kennedy campaign was out of money and on the ropes heading into Texas, Trippi drove from Arizona with five or six friends packed into a green Pinto and a plan to lure voters to the party caucuses.
Kennedy captured about one-third of the available delegates. Whether it involved setting up lemonade stands outside polling places, as Trippi tells it, remains in dispute.
Kennedy's candidacy failed, but for Trippi it led to an association with Democratic operative Bob Shrum (search) and the 1984 campaign of Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, then work for Hart and Gephardt in 1988.
Some of that was plain legwork - assigned to Maine for Mondale, he organized scores of new caucuses in a mere matter of days.
"I remember him as being very intense, maybe even scarily intense," said David Axelrod, a Chicago media consultant.
Burned out on presidential campaigns, Trippi spent nearly two decades advising high-tech companies, piling Silicon Valley know-how onto his political acumen.
For Dean, Trippi looked through the prism of the Web, back at the 1984 Democratic race when Hart made his first run for the presidency. The insurgent Hart campaign proved difficult to quash because of its self-organizing energy, according to Trippi. Mondale had the backing of almost the entire Democratic establishment, but it took him until mid-April to force Hart out.
"It dawned on me, being on the other side of Hart with Mondale, that if you drop a pebble in the water, these concentric circles will move on their own," Trippi said. The Internet "was Gary Hart's concentric circles on steroids."
Trippi noticed the online buzz about Dean spreading on its own and found ways to shape and spur it, yielding dollars, networks and excitement. It proved the perfect nontraditional launch for an upstart candidacy.
"He understood the Internet in a way no one else did," Dean said. "Absolutely, we would certainly not be where we are today without Joe Trippi."
Other candidates have struggled to match the success of Dean's chat rooms and Web logs, or "blogs," not to mention the campaign's ever-inventive ways of raising money.
With a baseball bat icon showing progress, Dean challenged donors to match the expected $250,000 take from one of Vice President Dick Cheney's luncheons. They nearly doubled it in a weekend.
Trippi's daily schedule usually involves just two to three hours of sleep, and hour upon hour in front of a computer, with Casey the dog at his side. He typically holes up in Burlington, Vt., with his wife Kathy Lash - a fellow Dean aide. He has three children from a previous marriage.