Going Public, With No Regrets
Elizabeth Edwards isn't afraid to speak her mind. Not everyone's comfortable with it
DES MOINESElizabeth Edwards looked out from the dais in the Holiday Inn ballroom in late July and warned breakfasting union members that she had bad news.
"Dick Cheney," she deadpanned, "is our president." After a stunned pause, the crowd guffawed when Edwards reminded them that Cheney's term would last only as long as President Bush's morning colonoscopy.
It was a good line, immediate and political, and it did exactly what Edwards wanted to do with this audience: Moved it beyond curiosity and concern about her battle with cancer to her husband's quest for the White House. For the next hour, the refreshingly unscripted wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards deftly fielded questions on issues from Iraq to healthcare and not one about her diagnosis. She has held other events for more personal, emotional conversations, including a series of house parties for women. But today she was master of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the gross domestic product.
Elizabeth Edwards, 58, the Florida-born daughter of a Navy pilot, has emerged as her husband's most potent campaigner and front-line surrogate. She has taken on Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton and conservative pundit Ann Coulter and starred solo in her husband's first ad in New Hampshire. She has become such a compelling figure that her husband's campaign strategists have had to tamp down rising chatter that she's overshadowing the candidate. "People do find her credible, and they certainly find her interesting," says J. Ann Selzer, who conducts the Des Moines Register Iowa poll, which in May showed Edwards leading in the state. A poll last week by Research 2000 had him with a 5-point lead over Clinton.
Yet it is unclear just how much her popularityand sympathy engendered by her grim diagnosis and the 1996 death of the Edwards's teenage son, Wade, in a car accidentwill affect her husband's effort to propel his campaign out of a distant third in national Democratic presidential preference polls.
Four months ago, it appeared unlikely that either of the Edwardses would be on the campaign trail. Elizabeth Edwards's breast cancer, first diagnosed in 2004 at the end of her husband's unsuccessful run for vice president, had recurred. Treatable but incurable, doctors said. With two young children still at home (daughter Cate is away at Harvard Law School), many expected that John Edwards would end his campaign. But his wife, who takes a daily chemotherapy pill and gets periodic infusions, says that wasn't what she wanted.
Energized. "If I sat home, the disease would be what the remainder of my days would be about," she told U.S. News. "It may surprise people to realize that most of the day I don't think about the cancer." She looks years younger than her age, says she has no symptoms, and aides characterize her energy level as "like a locomotive."
Edwards, who has lost 65 pounds and lightened her hair since the 2004 campaign, waved away descriptions of herself as brave. "Brave people are the firemen who run into the burning building," she says. "I'm in the burning building."