Most presidential campaigns mark their progress by how they are doing in the polls and how much money they are raising.
John Edwards’s campaign has another barometer of success: a 90-day calendar that tracks, in a jumble of red, green and black numbers, the spikes and dips in traffic to the campaign’s Web site. The calendar is taped on the wall of Joe Trippi, a senior campaign adviser, who can connect each spike to some effort to stir voters, including the video Mr. Edwards showed at a Democratic debate mocking the media for writing about his $400 haircut, and the time Elizabeth Edwards confronted the conservative commentator Ann Coulter on television.
After running a decidedly traditional race for the White House in 2004 and in the early stages of this contest, Mr. Edwards has quietly overhauled his campaign with one central goal: to harness the Internet and the political energy that liberal Democrats are sending coursing through it. In a slow but striking power shift, advisers who champion the political power of the Web have eclipsed the coterie of advisers who long dominated Mr. Edwards’s inner circle, both reflecting and intensifying his transformation into a more populist, aggressive candidate.
“They want me to shut up,” an unsmiling Mr. Edwards said to an audience in Creston, Iowa, on Thursday — remarks that were videotaped by an Edwards campaign worker and posted both on YouTube and the popular liberal Web site MyDD.com. “Let’s distract from people who don’t have health care coverage. Let’s distract from people who can’t feed their children. Let’s talk about this frivolous, nothing stuff.”
“They will never silence me,” he continued, not explaining who “they” were.
At the vanguard of the change is Mr. Trippi, something of a celebrity in the Democratic Internet world after managing Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. Mr. Trippi — who left Mr. Dean’s collapsing campaign in a storm of recriminations — has returned for an unexpected Round 2 at the urging of Mr. and Mrs. Edwards, breaking a vow Mr. Trippi says he made to himself not to return to presidential politics.
His role has been to help Mr. Edwards find ways to connect his message to the party’s liberal base in a campaign in which the traditional media channels have been clogged with news about Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, his two main Democratic rivals. The populist message that Mr. Edwards offered with a sunny face to living rooms of Iowans in 2004 is this time offered with indignation and anger, replete with us-against-them attacks on President Bush, establishment Washington, the wealthy and the news media. And his campaign is methodically pitching it on the Web.
“The Internet is the principal way we are communicating with voters right now,” Mrs. Edwards said in an interview.
Over the past month, Mr. Trippi has brought two of his associates from his last job — as a media consultant to a union-financed and highly effective Web-driven campaign against Wal-Mart — to manage communications and political organizing for Mr. Edwards. With the express approval and urging of Mr. and Mrs. Edwards, they have taken steps like using the Edwards Web site to gather signatures for a petition demanding the impeachment of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales while urging Mr. Edwards to press his tough-edged populist message even harder.
These days the Edwards campaign has taken on the appearance of Dean 2.0, and listening to Mr. Edwards is often akin to reading the postings on an angry blog.
Mrs. Edwards said she had been posting messages on the Internet since before there were blogs, and had increasingly seen its power as a tool in political campaigns.
She described Mr. Trippi as a “free thinker,” and contrasted him with political strategists grounded in past campaigns who she said at most grudgingly accepted the Internet as a political tool, instead arguing that campaigns should stick with proven methods.
“Joe came from the same tradition, but when he was confronted with somebody saying, ‘Why don’t we do it this way?’ he’d be like, ‘Let’s explore it,’ ” she said. “That’s the difference.” Inevitably, this shift has produced something of a culture clash as Mr. Trippi — an ambling 51-year-old college dropout from Silicon Valley with chronic diabetes — has pressed the campaign to try unorthodox tactics.
“Yeah, there are a bunch of differences,” Mr. Trippi said in an interview at the headquarters in Chapel Hill. “It was — it is — a more traditional campaign than the Dean campaign. The one thing is in a strange way, Edwards and Elizabeth — Elizabeth in particular, but Edwards, too — get it that the old way doesn’t work. That you need to use the Internet, blogs, technology, YouTube, to reach out to people.”
“She’s much more into it than he is, but he gets it in a way that Howard didn’t,” Mr. Trippi said. “I mean Howard got it, but he didn’t get into it. You would never get a call from him saying: ‘Should I call Ann Coulter? Or should I blog on this today?’ What I’m trying to say is she and John think about it more.”
By all accounts, this is not simply the story of another power struggle in another campaign. Instead, it reflects a decision that Mr. Edwards could not rely on traditional means to get his message through in a Democratic field where the Clinton-Obama battle sometimes threatens to reduce him to an afterthought.
“We’re in a different world than last time, with two big celebrity candidates,” said Jonathan Prince, who is also a senior campaign adviser and one of the few holdovers from the 2004 campaign. “And we have the message that is most change-oriented and empowering. So we both need to use the channel to reach people and should be using the channel that’s the most empowering thing out there.”
Mr. Trippi has been working in political campaigns for 30 years, but has become so closely identified with the Internet political community since 2004 — “it totally erased like 30 years of my life,” he said — that he is regularly accosted for autographs at events attended by bloggers. It was his status in that world that led Mr. and Mrs. Edwards to Mr. Trippi, as part of their effort to figure out how to channel the attitude of Democrats who are angry at compromise, eager to take on powerful institutions in Washington, fiercely antiwar and generally very supportive of the untrammeled populism that is coming to define Democratic politics.
Like Mrs. Edwards, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, Mr. Trippi suffers from a form of neuropathy, a condition that causes sharp pain in his extremities, in his case as a result of his acute diabetes and for her an apparent side effect of treatment. “We bonded over neuropathy,” she said.
The video about Mr. Edwards’s hair, shown at a debate where most of the other candidates made more conventional appeals for support, suggested the extent to which Mr. Edwards was willing to take risks.
Among those arguing against the effort, campaign officials said, was Harrison Hickman, Mr. Edwards’s pollster. Mr. Hickman did not return calls. The video was met with perplexed silence from Democrats sitting in the hall in Charleston, but Edwards aides declared victory the next day after noting that 124,000 people had watched their video on YouTube, far more than clicked onto the Clinton or Obama videos.
“The hair commercial was Joe’s idea,” Mrs. Edwards said. “Your choice on the hair stuff is to say this is not important, or make a joke at yourself or get angry at it because you know who is pushing it — we know who is pushing it and what campaigns are associated with it,” she said, without elaborating. “He thought of a 30-second way to make the point.”
There are risks to this strategy: As Mr. Edwards’s aides said, it is critical that he not throw out the best of the old in his search to harness the passion and money that can be raised through the Internet. And of course, Dean 1.0 did not take Mr. Dean even through Iowa.
But Mr. Edwards is not Mr. Dean. And the Internet is an entirely different force today from what it was when Mr. Trippi and Mr. Edwards ran their last campaigns.