Elizabeth Edwards once wrote that she liked campaigns when she was a safe distance from the cameras.
But she has been firmly in the spotlight since she and her husband, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, announced last month she is fighting a recurrence of cancer.
As the two campaigned this past week through Iowa and New Hampshire, she became a draw in her own right. Supporters waved signs that said "Iowa Lives Strong for Elizabeth" and "Elizabeth for First Lady," and staff quickly put up rope lines around her at the end of campaign events to control the well-wishers who mobbed her.
She said if curiosity or compassion bring out voters who will listen to her husband speak, she is happy to be the draw. But Elizabeth Edwards' influence on her husband's career runs long and deep.
"She's the person I trust most in the world and I rely on her for both personal and policy counsel," John Edwards, the former Democratic senator from North Carolina, said in an interview last week. "She's involved in everything."
He said his wife combines a talent for keeping the campaign focused on the struggles that people face with "a very wonky side."
Elizabeth Edwards has helped shape everything from his policies to his speeches and campaign staff. She even makes suggestions for the wording in his press releases, although she says her advice is not always taken.
The Iraq factor
The couple, who met at University of North Carolina's law school, share a similar political philosophy, yet they do not always agree. That includes the Senate vote to authorize war with Iraq that John Edwards has said was the most important of his career.
She was opposed from the beginning. She did not feel there was provocation for war and she did not trust President Bush with the authority. But John Edwards decided to vote the opposite way and she did not try to change his mind.
As time passed, John Edwards began to believe he made the wrong decision.
"We talked about it a lot," Elizabeth Edwards said, "and he was saying to me that it was so hard to come to that conclusion because young men and women lost their lives. ... Then he decided, `Let's face it, I was wrong and I'm going to have to say it, even though I know what it means.'"
In longhand, he wrote out an explanation for his vote that began: "I was wrong." He submitted the draft to his aides. They advised him to cut those first three words.
"I talked to Elizabeth about it and I said, `I really feel this is what I need to say,'" he said. "And she said, `Of course that's what you need to say if that's what you feel.' "
He is not the only one to hear Elizabeth Edwards' strong opinions.
She has a reputation for being tough on staff who do not meet her expectations and he said he counts on her to help interview job candidates to judge whether they are "really committed to the cause."
Elizabeth Edwards often expresses her opinion on Internet forums, usually using her own name. She began chatting online before it was so popular - after the death of their teenage son in 1996, when she was looking for support in her grief.
Elizabeth Edwards, who also had a daughter, quit her career as a lawyer and later had two other children.
She said she has learned not to use a critical tone while writing online.
For example, she said she recently was riled by a blogger on The Huffington Post who questioned the Edwardses' decision to continue the campaign with an 8-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son at home.
Elizabeth Edwards responded in the comments section, accusing the author of jumping to wrong conclusions. The Edwardses have decided to take their children on the campaign trail and use a combination of home schooling from their mother and tutoring from a professional. They were considering such an arrangement even before her diagnosis.
"First, our children will in fact be with us as we campaign - as they were last time, with some adjustments because they are a little older," she wrote.
"And second, our determination not to crumble at this news but to continue working for all we believe is an affirmation of life and a life lesson to them as well - a tough lesson but a vital one. And finally, as the comments to this post inform you, no one knows how long I will live; should we all sit home together until I do? What if it is twenty years? Why do I have to behave as it is twenty weeks?" she wrote.
She said that was a toned-down version of what she originally wrote.
"I have to admit that I typed something probably a little spicier, you know, nothing profane or anything," she said. "But I took that out and thought, `I need to convince this guy, not to alienate him.'"
A 'steel magnolia'
Elizabeth Edwards combines her opinions with a personal warmth that can contrast with her husband's more scripted style. "She's a southern woman - a steel magnolia," Democratic consultant Donna Brazile said.
Born Elizabeth Anania at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida in 1949, she spent her childhood between the U.S. and Japan as the family followed her father's assignments as a naval pilot.
She inherited her father's gregarious personality and honed her people skills in the frequent introduction to unfamiliar places - a trait that serves her well on the campaign trail.
Elizabeth Edwards said she and her husband did not grow up with much; she on military bases, her husband in mill towns where his father worked. That is why they decided to build their dream home on 102 wooded acres near Chapel Hill, N.C. It is a decision she says she does not regret even though it has led to criticism.
"I'm not going to apologize for the house," she said. "We don't go on fancy trips, we don't buy fancy cars - this is how we want to spend the money that John earned."
She said they have worked to make the 28,000-square-foot estate energy efficient. The estate is valued at between $1 million and $5 million. It includes a main home with five bedrooms and 6 1/2 baths connected by a covered walkway to recreational building that includes living quarters, a handball court, an indoor pool and an indoor basketball court with a stage at one end.
"If I were trying to be solely political, I would have said, let's not build that part yet," she said of the recreational building. "On the other hand, when he comes home during campaigning and goes down and shoots baskets with Jack, I think I'm just so glad we have this. So you know, I honestly feel two ways about it."
She said she has another regret: failing to get mammograms that could have detected her cancer earlier and stopped it from spreading to her bones.
"I am responsible for putting myself, this man, my family and, frankly, putting you all at risk, too, because I think you deserve the chance to vote for this man," she told voters in Davenport, Iowa.
Later, John Edwards said he thought she was being too hard on herself. But audience member Pat Baxter-Redal was thrilled with the example Elizabeth Edwards is setting as a respected voice for women's health.
"Yul Brynner helped me quit smoking," Baxter-Redal said, referring to the actor who died from lung cancer and became a posthumous anti-smoking advocate. "She's going to save lives."