The Gurus | Elizabeth Edwards

A True Political Partner

(By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007

Aboard a small chartered jet, Elizabeth Edwards -- lawyer, mother, author, cancer patient, candidate's wife -- was flying recently from New Hampshire to Iowa. She had spent the morning campaigning solo and was meeting her husband, John Edwards, and their younger daughter, Emma Claire, for two days of joint appearances. Son Jack was curled up under a blanket in the back of the cabin.

Among political insiders who closely follow the presidential race and gossip about who is up and who is down in every campaign, Elizabeth Edwards is seen as the hidden hand behind virtually every important decision regarding her husband's second bid for the White House.

"Boy, that would be completely wrong," she said with a laugh when asked about those perceptions. "Completely wrong."

Four months ago, Edwards, 58, received a diagnosis of incurable cancer, a finding that would have forced many other people to the sidelines. Instead, she has emerged as the most visible and effective advocate for her husband, the campaign's most provocative personality and newest television star.

What about de facto campaign manager?

"I get a lot more credit for, you know, being the puppeteer than I am," she said. "I express my opinion. Honestly, I'm not the decision maker."

In large part because of her illness and a best-selling book about her life, Edwards has achieved the kind of celebrity stature that befits someone who has appeared on "Oprah" and whose struggles have become very public.

Her cancer now helps to define her persona, but making John Edwards president also remains at the forefront of her life. If she is neither a political strategist nor the overseer of operations at Edwards's North Carolina headquarters, her influence on the broad outlines and some details of the Democratic former senator's campaign is without question.

"She's not micromanaging," said one strategist close to the campaign, "but to say she's just the spouse who travels occasionally would be a tremendous understatement."

She is the candidate's closest friend and most important confidant -- and co-architect of a campaign for the White House that differs in tone, style and substance from the one John Edwards ran four years ago, first as a presidential candidate and then as Sen. John F. Kerry's running mate. This one is designed to be more of a grass-roots insurgency -- bolder and more left-leaning -- and is set up so that the candidate's judgments and instincts take precedence over the advice of professional consultants.

Edwards said she and her husband gained confidence from the last campaign to run this one the way they thought best, rather than relying excessively on the advice of others.

"It seemed a lot more like theater the first time," she said. "Your life was run by advance and polling people and advisers [who would say], 'Say this line and say it this way, not that way.' So it seemed very theatrical. You felt like, you know, it was possible to flub your lines. It made you nervous about things because you could mess it up somehow, and that was really contrary to who John is and who I am. But we tried to do it because we had never done it before. We tried to do it the way we were told by people who had lots of experience. We're now liberated from that, and it's great."

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