Since John's 1998 victory over a Republican incumbent, the Edwardses have developed a political partnership that starts to explain her keenness for the 2008 race. "She's the kind of woman who watches C-SPAN for fun," says her friend Jennifer Palmieri, who served as press secretary for John's last presidential bid. "She loves to talk politics. She loves to read about it. She's different from her husband in that way: He would never in a million years sit down and watch C-SPAN. He would watch ESPN."
Elizabeth's key role throughout John's political career has been to push him toward fuller authenticity. When he arrived in Washington, he was a novice, vulnerable to advisers who urged him toward safe rhetoric that blunted his strong opinions. She was inexperienced too. As each grew sure-footed, Elizabeth pressed John to look inside himself for wisdom. "She never asks me to agree with her," he says. "Her primary counsel is to be true to what I believe—as long as I'm honest, it'll be fine—and not to get caught up in the advice of others, particularly the political others."
From the beginning, she was uncomfortable playing the traditional Senate wife, with "the perfectly coiffed hair, the perfect outfit, lipstick all the time," she says. "I'd come from being a soccer mom and decorating cupcakes, and I just made a decision that I wasn't going to change." In her preferred role of political adviser, she made sure she was included in her husband's office e-mail chain, and asked tough questions of him and his staff. Before the United States invasion of Iraq, she attended a meeting in their Washington home with three Clinton-era foreign affairs experts. Sitting in the breakfast room, the men argued that John should vote for the authorization bill. Elizabeth, who grew up in a country where Americans were often seen as occupiers, shuddered at "the idea of preemptive strike, as opposed to something that was provoked." Defying the unanimity in the room, she asked, "Where is the provocation?" Years later, John regretted not listening to his wife. "My vote was wrong, and I'm the one who has to live with that," he says.
During the 2004 election, close associates saw Elizabeth's imprint as John came into his own—first during the primary season, then as John Kerry's running mate. "It's hard," says Palmieri, "to calibrate where Elizabeth ends and John begins." She, too, flourished during the campaign, savoring her encounters with voters. They would lean in to embrace her, sometimes in tears, whispering that they had lost sons as well, or feared they might in Iraq. They talked about the impossibility of buying health insurance and myriad everyday crises. Those brief conversations were manna for Edwards, a natural extrovert who feeds off intimate contact and human narrative. When they travel as a family, the Edwardses play a game in which they invent tales about the houses they pass. "There might be a flower box but the flowers are dead, so maybe the mother is sick," she says. "I do it with people, too. You see their faces and come up with a story about them. Whether it's true or not, it gives them life and makes it harder to look at them as an abstraction."
Then, less than two weeks before Election Day, Edwards's own narrative took another grim turn. Standing in a hotel shower, she discovered a firm lump on the side of her right breast. Her physician advised it was probably malignant. Yet, she kept up her fast-paced schedule. "We did not miss one campaign stop," says her friend Hargrave McElroy, who traveled with her. "She shook hands and hugged people and we laughed. It was as though the news wasn't there." The day after the Kerry-Edwards ticket lost the election, her doctor's forecast was confirmed: The lump was diagnosed as cancer.