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Criticism follows Elizabeth Edwards

John Edwards' wife fades from the spotlight amid questions about what she knew and when.

By Anne Blythe
Raleigh (News & Observer)

Elizabeth Edwards could have been in the spotlight last week, a terminally ill mother and admired Democrat on an emotional crusade for health care reform.

Instead, she was missing in action from the Democratic National Convention in Denver, dealing in seclusion with a sex scandal that has discounted her political currency among the party faithful.

More than three weeks have passed since John Edwards sat down with ABC and admitted to the extramarital affair with videographer Rielle Hunter that not only ruined his family-man image but also forced him into exile.

John Edwards is scheduled to make his first public appearance since the ABC interview at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., a week after Labor Day.

Initially, John and Elizabeth Edwards were to make a joint appearance at the Sept. 8 kickoff of the university's Educate '08 speaker series leading up to the presidential debate at the school in mid-October. But Hofstra sent out a notice on Friday saying the former presidential candidate and U.S. senator from North Carolina would be appearing solo.

Elizabeth Edwards, once celebrated on the campaign trail for her forthrightness, has been a target of criticism since her husband's ABC interview. The public compassion and sympathy typically lavished on the spurned spouse in such situations has faded, with questions swirling about when she first found out about her spouse's liaison.

Political insiders and ordinary voters have called them reckless. He's the philanderer; she's the campaigner who, in speech after speech, described John Edwards, the husband she met more than three decades ago in law school, as a devoted spouse and family man.

They remained committed to the campaign after her cancer returned last year, this time incurable, and after the National Enquirer first reported the affair later that year.

Timeline questions

Since his revelation to a national TV audience, John Edwards has spent some time on Figure Eight, the private island near Wilmington, where the couple have had a house for years.

Friends say Elizabeth has been at the couple's expansive home outside Chapel Hill, the remote estate where her husband invited ABC's Bob Woodruff into their private life for a public response that still raises questions weeks later.

Elizabeth Edwards posted on the day of her husband's public announcement to the Daily Kos, a liberal blog where she has a diary. Her post, in which she asked for privacy while explaining her support “for an imperfect man who had come to face his own imperfections,” also raises questions about the timing of his revelation to his family.

John Edwards said the affair began after Hunter started working for his campaign in 2006. In the TV interview, Edwards said he told his wife that year about the liaison, which he described as brief.

But bloggers have posted photos of Edwards and Hunter together on his presidential bid announcement tour, a series of events in late December 2006. Not long after that, an aide pushed back the date for when Elizabeth Edwards found out about the affair, saying it was after that tour, the last days of December 2006, barely within the year her Daily Kos post stated she found out.

Andrew Young, an aide to John Edwards and a married man with three children, has claimed through his lawyer that he also had an affair with Hunter. He said he fathered the baby girl born to Hunter in February, but no father was listed on the birth certificate.

‘She would have been a star'

Since Aug. 8, neither John Edwards nor Elizabeth Edwards has responded to further questions about the scandal.

Hargrave McElroy, a Raleigh teacher and one of Elizabeth's closest friends, said several weeks ago that Elizabeth Edwards' main goal since learning of the affair was protecting her two young children, Jack, 8, and Emma Claire, 10. (Cate, their 26-year-old daughter, is a Harvard law school student.)

“When you've got a third-grader and a fifth-grader, you've got to above all prepare for a time when you may not be there,” McElroy said. “Her main aim, I think, in any decision she's made is in trying to keep her family whole. I think her health is an overriding decision in that, especially when you've got young children.”

Elizabeth Edwards has been open about her battle with breast cancer, a fight that began in 2004 toward the end of her husband's and John Kerry's failed bid for the White House. She chronicled her experience in “Saving Graces,” a memoir published in September 2006.

In June, after John Edwards dropped out of the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, said he would be “partnering” with her on health care policy.

But Elizabeth Edwards canceled a scheduled appearance at a panel discussion in Denver this past week with powerful health care policy makers. And Obama made no mention of either Edwards last week in Denver.

Chris Conover, a health policy expert at Duke University, credited John Edwards for being the first presidential candidate with a universal health care plan, laying down an ambitious marker for other candidates promising reform.

Although Conover was unfamiliar with Elizabeth's posts on health care policy to political blogs and Internet sites, he said she could have been a powerful messenger for reform this past week.

“It always helps to put a face on the problem,” Conover said. “She has a compelling story to tell. In terms of sort of focusing attention on the issue, she's a sympathetic figure.”

Larry Sabato, a political analyst and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said he thought Elizabeth Edwards could have been a darling for health care reform at this year's convention had it not been for the sex scandal.

“She would have been a star,” Sabato said. “I think she would have gotten a speech. It would have been emotional, probably televised.”

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