Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean shook up his faltering bid for the White House on Wednesday, replacing his campaign manager with a longtime associate of former Vice President Al Gore.
In a further sign of distress, Dean, the one-time Democratic front-runner, implemented cost-cutting measures as he looked ahead to a series of costly primaries and caucuses, asking staff to defer their paychecks for two weeks.
“Governor Dean asked Roy Neel to join the campaign, as CEO and Joe Trippi resigned as campaign manager,” said Tricia Enright, a campaign spokeswoman.
A source said that Dean offered Trippi a spot on the payroll as a senior adviser — similar to the position Neel has held since Jan. 1 — but that Trippi decided to quit rather than accept the demotion.
One day after absorbing a double-digit defeat in New Hampshire at the hands of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Dean publicly and privately expressed his determination to remain in the race. At the same time, in a conference call with members of Congress who have endorsed him, he was told bluntly that finishing second was not good enough — that he had to show he could win a primary.
“He said he understood,” said a lawmaker who was involved in the call.
Dean’s campaign chairman, Steve Grossman, also said Wednesday that the candidate must win a presidential primary in the next two weeks to keep even his most loyal donor base — those giving modest amounts over the Web — contributing enough to make him financially competitive.
Rapid fall for Dean
The tumultuous events capped a swift slide for Dean, who was the campaign front-runner at the dawn of the election year, the man with money, momentum and a lead in the polls nationwide and in most states.
But that was before he faded to third place in the Iowa caucuses Jan. 19 and dealt himself a further setback with an appearance before supporters that even aides conceded was overly animated and less than presidential.
Democrats outside the campaign were surprised that Dean would make such a dramatic move in the middle of the primary race.
“It’s the campaign’s acknowledgment that things have gotten drastically off course,” said Anita Dunn, who helped run Bill Bradley’s failed 2000 campaign. “Often, when that happens, you make a managerial change, no matter how well the manager was doing.”
Trippi, who has a quarter-century of experience in Democratic politics, is widely credited with helping Dean build the campaign that transformed him from an asterisk in the polls to front-runner by the end of 2003.
Trippi breaks the news
Dean announced that Neel would take the new position during a staff meeting, but aides who were present said he did not mention Trippi’s departure. Trippi then came in and tearfully told his staff that he was leaving.
“Howard Dean is the guy who is going to fight for the country for real change and [I] hope people stick with him,” Trippi said as he left campaign headquarters with his wife, Kathy Lash, who also worked for Dean.
“I’m out of the campaign, but I’m not out of the fight,” he said. “We need to change America.”
Kate O’Conner, an aide to Dean, said Dean wanted Neel to take over office operations but wanted Trippi to stay on as a strategist running the Internet operations, an offer he turned down.
Trippi had been part of the staff faction that had urged Dean to focus on a few states that could be won, skipping all or most of the contests next Tuesday in favor of Michigan, Washington state and Wisconsin. Dean and Neel dug in their heels, insisting that he had to play everywhere, an argument that prevailed as Trippi left.
His departure sent shock waves through the campaign, where he was a popular boss and something of an icon to the thousands of Internet-savvy supporters across the country. It was not unusual for crowd members to look for Trippi’s autograph before Dean’s at campaign events.
“Trippi has been a driving force in the campaign. There’s no question it’s been built around his interesting personality,” said Donna Brazile, who helped run Gore’s campaign. “But there’s more to the Dean campaign than Joe Trippi. He has been the heart of it, but he does not embody it.”
Gore takes leading role
Dean campaign officials said the move was a sign of Gore’s growing influence in the campaign. Gore had recommended that Neel play a larger role, officials said.
Trippi’s critics in the campaign had complained to Dean about the massive TV ad expenditures in Iowa and New Hampshire, a share of which went to the media firm run by Trippi and Steve McMahon.
The ad team of McMahon and Mark Squier will remain on the campaign, but they have been told to build a broader ad team that includes creative input from Hollywood and New York specialists to produce better spots, a senior official said on condition of anonymity.
He and other officials predicted that some campaign aides would follow Trippi out the door in protest, and they said there was concern in the campaign that Dean’s supporters on the Internet would give up on his bid.
Neel, Gore’s senatorial chief of staff, was chief executive of the U.S. Telecom Association in Washington before working on Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. Neel was named to head Gore’s transition team in anticipation of winning the White House.
Neel pledged to join Dean’s campaign after Gore endorsed him Dec. 9.
As word of the staff change circulated, the official blog on Dean’s Web site lit up with mixed reaction from campaign supporters. Several praised Trippi’s skills, which they said brought Dean’s candidacy as far as it had come, while others said it was past time for a shake-up.
“Let’s all give our thanks to Joe Trippi as he took this campaign from obscurity to front runner status. Now is the elections and a different kind of campaign was needed,” said a post from “rwilson4dean.”
“Good, Trippi needed to be replaced,” wrote “NJ for Dean.” “Maybe HQ will start to listen to us!!!! Get better ads!”
The decision to shake up the campaign was made in a series of discussions in Burlington on a day that his rivals were already out campaigning for votes in the seven states that hold primaries and caucuses next Tuesday.