WASHINGTON — Is Elizabeth Edwards helping or hurting her husband's presidential campaign?
It's an indelicate question; I feel uncomfortable asking it. But I'm certainly not the only one doing so.
She emerged from the 2004 campaign more popular than John Edwards, John Kerry and, certainly, Kerry's wife Teresa. She drew respect and warm condolences from every corner of the political spectrum, including President Bush, when she told the nation in March the sad news that her breast cancer had returned, and was now incurable. She was a picture of strength, courage and grace.
But since then, Elizabeth Edwards has... evolved. Or, at least, her public face has. As John Edwards struggles to remain a viable alternative to Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, she has become her husband's most vocal and frequent hatchet (wo)man, launching salvos at his rivals that others (especially would-be first ladies) wouldn't dare. Indeed, until their latest debate at Dartmouth College on Wednesday, John Edwards himself had been a less aggressive critic than his wife.
It started in late June, as the second-quarter fundraising period drew to a close, when she called in to MSNBC's "Hardball" to demand that Ann Coulter stop attacking her husband. The campaign promptly highlighted the exchange on its Web site to boost their money totals. Video: Elizabeth Edwards takes on Ann Coulter
Interviewed in the August issue of Progressive magazine, she criticized Obama as "behaving in a holier-than-thou way" on the Iraq war and said he and Clinton are not showing leadership on health care and Iraq.
In New Hampshire last month, she insisted she didn't think so-called "Hillary hatred" was justified. "But," she quickly added, "you can't pretend it doesn't exist, and it will energize the Republican base. Their nominee won't energize them. Bush won't, but Hillary as the nominee will. It's hard for John to talk about, but it's a reality."
Last week, she noted wryly the similarity between the health care plans of Hillary Clinton and her husband. "It's almost as if she hasn't been willing to have the courage independently to be a leader on these things," she said.
And this week, she told the New York Daily News that Clinton is "wrong on how it is we get universal health care, and her own experience should have taught her that." The Clintons "lost the fight" on health care in 1993, she added, because they decided, strategically, that it was wiser to expend their "political capital" on NAFTA instead. Their "stick-to-it-iveness... wasn't there."
Quite notably, the Daily News added, Camp Clinton "declined to respond to Edwards' broadsides."
Of course it did. Clinton's campaign knows full well that Elizabeth Edwards holds a special place in voters' hearts and minds. And despite her increasingly provocative role on the campaign trail, she remains virtually untouchable.
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There are, of course, perfectly acceptable reasons for her actions.
More than any candidate's spouse other than Bill Clinton, she's a savvy veteran of the national stage and, consequently, feels more comfortable speaking her mind. Like so many activists who support Clinton's rivals, she is increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of play in the Democratic race. And if Obama continues to pull his punches toward Clinton, as he did Wednesday night in New Hampshire, it's hard to see how Edwards can benefit from a boomerang effect similar to the one he enjoyed in Iowa in 2004.
But the question actually reflects less on Elizabeth Edwards than it does on her husband's campaign. Did the Edwards camp, recognizing Elizabeth's invincibility, goad her into launching these broadsides, potentially driving up her own negatives? Aides insist she answers to no one. But can she be her husband's biggest asset if she is viewed as polarizing as, say, Hillary Clinton was in 1992? Polls show Clinton and Obama outrank John Edwards as the "second choice" of Democratic voters, meaning they, not he, benefit more when the other one loses support.
We're dealing with uncharted waters here -- a woman who, unlike Hillary Clinton in 1992, has established a positive national image, reinforced by voters' admiration for the strength she has displayed in her battle with cancer, who's now choosing to expend her own "political capital" by launching broad critiques she hopes will benefit her husband.
Take, for example, this video she taped this week as part of the campaign's bid to raise money in the closing days of the third quarter. "Sometimes we put things off, don't we? We think we have all the time in the world. But we don't.... Sometimes we can't wait," says Edwards, staring into the camera as she sits in a wicker chair on a porch. "The question is, what are you going to do? Are you going to step up? ... The truth is, we don't have all the time in the world."
Is she talking about raising campaign money... or life?
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.