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A hired gun who muses with fingertips

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- There are proven ways to rise in a political campaign: years of loyal foot soldiering, working fund-raisers, holding signs. But when you are quite probably the first chief blogger in presidential politics, it stands to reason that your path will be less conventional.

So it was that Mathew Gross, 31, former rock band drummer, Colorado River boatman, and environmental studies graduate student, became the blogmaster of the Howard Dean for President operation -- before the Dean campaign developed its tech-savvy reputation, before Dean's "Blog for America" even existed. A blog, shorthand for weblog, is an online bulletin board that includes personal thoughts and links to other sites.

Eight months ago, Gross was a prototypical early Dean fan, a tech-savvy liberal who lived a fairly low-tech life in Moab, Utah. He wrote freelance pieces and edited an anthology about Glen Canyon, a 170-mile stretch of Utah and Arizona that wound up in the bottom of a reservoir. He dabbled in Utah politics and flirted with a run for Grand County Council. And, on his own time, he blogged.

Last December, on some liberal weblogs, Gross started posting thoughts about an upstart candidate who used to be governor of Vermont. Before long, he figured it might be nice to work for the guy.

"I literally one day decided I should come out here," Gross said one midsummer afternoon in campaign manager Joe Trippi's empty office, a few feet from Kasey, the campaign dog, who lay supine on the couch. In late February, he bought himself a plane ticket to Burlington and became one of the legions of aides who toil in relative obscurity to make the campaign process work: answering phones, licking stamps, writing policy documents. He wrote a renegade memo to Trippi and his then-co-manager, proposing that the Dean campaign get a blog of its own.

Gross got an audience with Trippi and tried to explain: there's this thing called the blogosphere, and on it, Dean's got buzz. "I write for this site called `MyDD,' " he said. At which point, as Gross tells it, Trippi sat upright and said something along the lines of "You're hired."

It turned out that Trippi knew about blogs, followed, and liked the idea of an interactive, real-time Web presence. So Gross moved to Burlington for good and started to set things up. Early postings were fairly official. Eventually, things got breezier; in June, the staff posted a picture of Trippi, on his birthday, in a dunking booth.

Now, every campaign has a blog, it seems, and Dean's, which once had 3,000 readers, gets 30,000 visitors a day. Gross has traded his "low-rent motel" for a "high-rent apartment," though he spends more time in the office than out of it. His wife has moved closer, from Utah to Cambridge, where she studies at the Episcopal Divinity School.

And in the Dean blog universe, Gross has become a known character, an online surrogate friend. Last week, after flying to New Mexico for the candidates' debate, he posted a rhapsodic entry about the West: "A thunderstorm flashing to the south . . . the desert below us lit up by a waxing moon."

Among loyal Deanites, it drew some concern.

"Mathew, for heaven's sake your post is at 4:10 a.m. M.D.T.," somebody wrote. "Did you get any sleep?"

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