"Instead of moving from primary mode to general election mode, why don't we have tell-the-truth mode, all the time, and not say something different one time than we say another time?" Edwards asked pointedly last week in New Hampshire.
From the day he announced his candidacy in New Orleans last December, Edwards has presented himself as an outsider, someone much different from the senator who was John F. Kerry's running mate in 2004. But in recent weeks he has launched a markedly more aggressive attack on what he says is Clinton's poll-tested commitment to the status quo, and the new tone to his campaign has coincided with the growing influence of the strategist behind Howard Dean's assault on the Democratic establishment four years ago -- Joe Trippi.
By all accounts, Elizabeth Edwards and Trippi have developed a close relationship, beginning during their first meeting this spring at the Edwardses' home in Chapel Hill, N.C. An hour and a half into listening to the couple's pitch to join the campaign, Trippi suddenly flinched when his diabetic neuropathy -- a nerve disorder that sends pains shooting through his body at random intervals -- began bothering him. Elizabeth Edwards noticed. And when Trippi started talking about his illness, she told him that she suffers from the same condition.
For decades Trippi has been a part of Democratic presidential politics, often working for long shots -- Rep. Richard A. Gephardt in 1988, Jerry Brown in 1992 -- and through a combination of sharp elbows and sharply defined messages transformed them into legitimate candidates.
As Dean went from an afterthought in the 2004 presidential race to the Democratic front-runner, Trippi's star rose with him. But when the former Vermont governor finished third in the Iowa caucuses, the campaign was essentially over, and Trippi was suddenly out of a job. And, many assumed, he was out of presidential politics -- a decision seemingly affirmed at his meeting with the Edwardses.
Officially, Trippi has been described as part of a trio of advisers that includes pollster Harrison Hickman and longtime adviser Jonathan Prince. But the evidence seemed to suggest that it was Trippi who now had the Edwardses' trust.
Trippi declined to discuss his role in the campaign's day-to-day operations. "I hope that I have brought a better focus to the campaign and his message -- and helped better define the differences between the change John Edwards would bring to Washington [versus] the business as usual candidacy of Hillary Clinton," he said.
Asked to explain Trippi's rise within the Edwards inner circle, a former staffer said: "Two words: Elizabeth Edwards." The source, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, added: "I think Trippi's influence grows daily, and because that influence is Elizabeth-sanctioned it makes it all the more powerful."
Although Trippi plays down the closeness of his relationship with Elizabeth Edwards -- the two have spoken directly only five or six times during the campaign, he said -- it is clear that they share the same ideas about aggressive campaigning.
Take Elizabeth Edwards's decision to confront conservative commentator Ann Coulter during Coulter's appearance on MSNBC's "Hardball." It was Trippi who gave her the number for the show's control room.
Or take the video that Trippi produced for the CNN-YouTube debate that poked fun at the media's obsession with how much John Edwards paid for a haircut. Trippi said Elizabeth Edwards "really liked" that video -- a phenomenon on the Web.
And, in contrast to her husband's campaigns in 2004, when she played a somewhat peripheral role, Elizabeth Edwards often takes the fight to her husband's opponents more aggressively than he does. She was the first to broach the idea that her husband, and not Clinton, is the strongest advocate for women in the race, and she most pointedly questioned whether Obama's voting record in the Senate matched his antiwar rhetoric before joining Congress.
Those familiar with the relationship between Trippi and Elizabeth Edwards offer several reasons for their alliance. One connection is over their health issues. Another is over the Internet. Trippi became interested in how it could be used in politics, and Elizabeth Edwards became fascinated with its power to create social connections while she dealt with her cancer.
As David Weinberger, an Internet strategist for Dean and part-time consultant to the Edwards campaign, wrote on the Huffington Post, "during times that could have crushed her -- that would have beaten most of us down -- she found strength in and with others, many on the Internet."
It's that message -- a fiery, some say angry, populism -- that has drawn attention to John Edwards of late.
One Democratic consultant who has worked with Trippi said the common thread in the majority of the presidential campaigns with which Trippi has been involved is an outrage with the way Washington operates.
A former senior staffer for Dean's presidential campaign said, "Anyone that knows Joe could see a marked difference in the creation of the new John Edwards once Joe came aboard." Trippi, the staffer added, "is an incredibly powerful force on any campaign, and when given a malleable candidate he will have an enormous impact."