RALEIGH, N.C. — Four months ago, the question was whether John Edwards could carry on his presidential campaign because his wife Elizabeth's cancer had returned.
Last week, Edwards' campaign managers were fielding questions about whether Elizabeth had become "the dominant voice" of the campaign.
In those few months, Elizabeth Edwards, 58, a lawyer, has transformed herself from ailing spouse to potent weapon, especially as the campaign tries to cast doubt among voters about New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner.
In recent days, Elizabeth Edwards has sparred long distance with former President Bill Clinton over Hillary Clinton's record on women, starred solo in a TV ad for her husband in the first primary state, New Hampshire, and campaigned with her husband along the back roads of the Mississippi Delta.
Edwards has been variously described as her husband's "stealth fighter" or "bulletproof cannon" or "the most interesting person in the presidential race right now."
If not the dominant voice, Elizabeth Edwards has become the most provocative one.
"The Straight Talk Express has changed gender and has a skirt," said Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, a New York-based nonpartisan organization that promotes women in leadership positions. She was referring to Arizona Sen. John McCain, known for his candor, whose campaign bus was known as the Straight Talk Express.
Wilson said that Elizabeth Edwards appears to be moving from being an important back-room player to a more visible role, to boost her husband's struggling campaign.
"You know she has been behind the scenes in the campaign all the time," Wilson said. "It's not new. It's just out there now. If you are part of a team, and the energy of the team has gone down a little, someone else on the team has to rev it up. She is revving it up. She is putting a lot of energy back into it. She has got him back on the front pages."
With the major Democratic presidential candidates carefully avoiding criticizing one another, Elizabeth Edwards has been willing to question the front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Criticizing a female candidate, a delicate maneuver, might be easier for Elizabeth Edwards than for her husband.
The latest flap came during an interview with Salon, an online magazine, published Tuesday in which she questioned whether Hillary Clinton would be the best choice for women.
She said that her husband had better proposals on both health care and poverty.
"She's just not as vocal a women's advocate as I want to see," Elizabeth Edwards said. "John is."
"Keeping that door open to women is actually more a policy of John's than Hillary's," she said, noting that she understood that "sometimes you feel you have to behave as a man and not talk about women's issues."
On Thursday, Bill Clinton defended his wife.
"If you look at the record on women's issues," the former president said on ABC's "Good Morning America," "I defy you to find anybody who has run for office in recent history whose got a longer history of working for women, for families and children than Hillary does."
This was not the first time Elizabeth Edwards has criticized Hillary Clinton.
Several days ago she told a New Hampshire audience that "I'm for the promotion of all women. I'm not just for the promotion of one us," according to The Union Leader.
In October, she noted that she and Hillary Clinton were both lawyers who married lawyers, but said, "I think my choices have made me happier." She later apologized to Clinton for the remark.
Elizabeth Edwards' comments come at a time when John Edwards is struggling to win the votes of women. The most recent CNN poll of Democratic women found that 45 percent support Clinton, 25 percent back Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and 11 percent support Edwards.
In recent weeks, Elizabeth Edwards has increasingly been in the limelight. Last month, she tangled with conservative columnist Ann Coulter, who had used a schoolyard epithet against her husband. Several weeks ago, she diverged from her husband, saying she supported same-sex marriages, although her husband does not. John Edwards supports only civil unions.
At times, Elizabeth seemed to be stepping on her husband's message. On the campaign trail last week, while Edwards was emphasizing his anti-poverty proposals, both Edwards and his campaign staff were peppered with questions about Elizabeth's comments about Hillary Clinton.
"It probably shouldn't come as a shock to anybody that my wife is supporting me," Edwards quipped Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
But of course, the Edwards campaign has been eager to use her. In her TV ad in New Hampshire, Elizabeth Edwards touches obliquely on the tragedies of her family's life.
In the ad, she talks about her husband's "unbelievable toughness" in the face of adversity.
"It's unbelievably important that in our president we have someone who can stare the worst in the face. And not blink," she says.
The role of the political spouse has been evolving - from holding campaign teas to being an important part of the campaign team. Teresa Heinz, the wife of 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, was an independent, outspoken woman. Hillary Clinton played a crucial role in rescuing her husband's candidacy in 1992, when there were news reports of infidelities. Ann Romney, the wife of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, is featured in a radio ad airing in New Hampshire.
Even so, Elizabeth Edwards appears to be plowing new ground. It is rare for a spouse to appear alone in a TV ad. And it's rarer still for a spouse to take an independent position on an issue as controversial as same-sex marriage.
"Her role has clearly been to be a bit more outspoken and a little more independent," said Debbi Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "I am struck by her different position on gay marriage. That is unusual in a presidential race. I'm not sure I've seen that before."
Friends say the marriage between John and Elizabeth Edwards has always been between intellectual equals and partners in law and now politics. Elizabeth can be a force in the campaign headquarters in Chapel Hill, N.C., regularly offering suggestions to campaign aides through telephone calls and e-mail messages.
"Elizabeth has always been a very strong-willed person of deep convictions and core beliefs," said David Kirby, John Edwards' former law partner, who has known the couple since they were in law school at UNC-Chapel Hill.
"She has always been someone who has freely spoken her mind," Kirby said. "She and John will differ on some issues. While they have been married for 30 years and dated through law school, and they are very bonded and close as a couple, they are not necessarily in sync in political convictions."
Until Edwards ran for the Senate, Elizabeth was seen by friends as the more political and ideological, while John focused most of his attention on his career and family.
Edwards did not play a visible role in her husband's 1998 Senate campaign because she was pregnant. She was also less prominent in the 2004 campaign when she had younger children. The children are now school age, freeing her up to campaign.
And the disclosure that she had breast cancer at the end of the 2004 campaign put her more in the public eye. A national book tour last fall for her best-selling memoir increased her visibility, and the announcement in March that the cancer had recurred and spread made her into a national figure.
This spring, Time Magazine put her on its list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Her life is a balance of campaigning, parenting and managing her disease. She has lost 65 pounds through dieting, and between campaign stops is writing "a dying letter" as a guide to her three children, according to The Wall Street Journal, which led its weekend edition with a profile of her. Between campaign events last week, she managed to take her two youngest children, Emma Claire and Jack to the toy store and visit her son Wade's grave at Raleigh's Oakwood Cemetery on his birthday.
This fall, she plans to home-school her two small children on the campaign trail.
She tells crowds she is feeling well, and her campaign schedule reflects that. She joined her husband's poverty tour in New Orleans and in Mississippi on Monday before traveling to Washington to have dinner with her daughter Cate. On Wednesday she was in Roanoke for a blue grass rally for her husband and on Thursday she gave a speech in Oklahoma City
Friday night she was a guest on Larry King's program on CNN. On Saturday she was scheduled to make three solo appearances in Iowa.
"Having been placed on the public stage," Kirby said, "I don't see her retreating from it."