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Elizabeth Edwards Was Husband's Biggest Asset

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards greets his wife, Elizabeth, during the New Leadership on Health Care Presidential Forum on Saturday, March 24, 2007, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Eric Jamison)
When John Edwards declared himself a candidate in his first presidential campaign, his South Carolina rally was interrupted by rowdy critics who ridiculed the trial lawyer-turned-politician as a liberal and an ambulance chaser. Elizabeth Edwards stepped forward, took the microphone and asked for "good Southern manners." Hecklers hushed.

The moment showed why Elizabeth Edwards was her husband's biggest asset. She was his chief defender, even when many people thought he didn't deserve it, and helped propel his political career with charm, humor, intelligence and directness.

(Scroll down to watch a video about Elizabeth Edwards' life)

PICTURES: Elizabeth Edwards

After I had written about their appearance that day, I headed to catch a flight back to Washington only to see her waiting alone at the same gate. We were both tired after a long, hot day of campaign rallies in our dark business jackets as I approached her to reintroduce myself since our last meeting months earlier.

"I know who you are," she said - my first sign just how closely she monitored news coverage and everything else involving her husband's campaign. "Let's go ask them to seat us together since no one else will be able to stand the smell of us."

Here she was, a potential first lady joking about body odor.

Her wit and willingness to acknowledge her imperfections and setbacks, whether a struggle to lose weight or the later loss of her hair during chemotherapy - turned her into a hit in the campaign. She could draw crowds as large as her husband's, especially among the all-important female voters. They related to her as a mother toting along two young children on a campaign bus where she forced everyone to sing from songbooks.

And in the second campaign, many women would approach her with tears in their eyes to relay their own experiences with breast cancer. That continual grappling with grief could visibly wear her down some days.

John Edwards told me when his campaign was riding high that without Elizabeth he wouldn't have made it - and that wasn't just because of her moral support. She won him endorsements, helped shape all his policy and political decisions and improved his reputation before it collapsed with his marital betrayal.

In a campaign world where most public statements are staged, access is restricted and political spouses are often kept from voicing their opinions, her voice stood out. Edwards told me in 2003 that campaign advisers may not have appreciated her outspokenness when she stepped out of the traditional role of political wife and criticized President George W. Bush as "the biggest, baddest cowboy in town." Four years later, the campaign used her as its most opinionated weapon, dispatching her across key primary states to criticize her husband's opponents.

This was no delicate flower, there to smile for the camera behind her husband.

Advisers had to pass muster with her before they were hired and might get a dressing-down when she wasn't pleased with their work. She voiced her opinion on strategy conference calls and would monitor what was written about him even on obscure Internet sites, sometimes offering a retort in the comments section using her own name.

Political spouses often say they can't stand to read the negative things written about the person they love. But Edwards once told me, "We know what real hurt is - these are just words."

That was in 2003, and she was referring to the crushing blow they had experienced seven years earlier with the death of their 16-year-old son, Wade, in an automobile accident.

She still had much more real hurt ahead - her breast cancer diagnosis in the final days of the 2004 campaign, after her husband had been nominated as the Democratic vice presidential candidate; her husband's private revelation to her of an affair in his second White House bid; the discovery that the cancer she thought she had beat had spread; and the public admission first that he had cheated and later that he had fathered a child with his mistress.

Edwards was curious about people in a way that made her a natural campaigner. She liked to ask people about themselves. She'd ask what they would like to have as a career besides what they were already doing. Edwards, who had studied literature, told me in the first campaign she wished she could be an author. She later would write two books, both reflecting on the tragedies in her life and how she grappled with them.

She showed her tenacity in deciding to leave her husband at a terrifying time, not knowing how quickly her end would come. But it was a decision rooted in the hope that she could make a different life no matter how little time she had.

She resisted death and continued to push for universal health care, appear on television and help administer the foundation in her late son's name. She went to her high school reunion and even took a trip to Japan, where she had lived as a girl.

She wrote on Facebook that she cried all the way through the museum in Hiroshima that her mother never let her visit in her childhood.

Her last Facebook posting, before she said goodbye to everyone Monday, was on Halloween, when she said doctors had changed her therapies and she was feeling good. "Despite the reports, there is no headstone for me in the front yard or elsewhere," she wrote.

My last formal interview with Edwards was during the 2008 campaign, when we sat among pottery wheels in an Iowa high school classroom and talked about the return of her cancer. She was feisty, and frustrated with reports that said she was likely to die within five years.

"If they tell me I've got 15 minutes I'm still going to fight," she said. "It doesn't matter what the prognosis is."

She declared 10 years was her "bottom line."

"But even then I'm not happy," she said. "I'm 67 in 10 years. That's not enough. I've got more stuff to do."