WASHINGTON — Elizabeth Edwards didn't draw any embarrassing questions Thursday morning when she showed up on Capitol Hill to talk health care.
No one remarked on her husband's candidacy for president, or his infidelity, or the baby of uncertain parentage being raised somewhere by the younger woman who once produced Web videos for John Edwards.
Instead, Elizabeth Edwards drew salutations of praise, especially from Democratic female members of Congress, during a House subcommittee hearing on health care reform.
"Our friend," Rep. Lois Capps of California described her.
"Incredible vision and leadership," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois.
"So courageous," added Rep. Hilda Solis of California.
It was Edwards' most public appearance since her husband admitted his infidelity on national television last month. And while John Edwards may be ducking the limelight until after Election Day, his wife took up the mantle of his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president by forging headlong into the health care debate.
In her testimony, Edwards showed hints of the feisty image she's cultivated over the years, slamming Republican presidential nominee John McCain and arguing with a GOP congressman about the cost of universal health care.
She wasn't even the star witness — that was New Jersey Gov. John Corzine — and she was just one of nine panelists in a hearing that dragged on more than three hours.
But Edwards kept her focus Thursday on political matters, reciting one of the many personal stories from her husband's stump speech and even managing to rankle Republicans with her repeated commentary about McCain.
"Let's consider Sen. John McCain's approach (to health care) as the ideal conservative approach," Edwards began.
She went on to slam McCain's ideas on health care tax credits and the fact that his plan wouldn't cover all Americans, including some who may have pre-existing conditions such as cancer.
"Senator McCain and I have something in common, which is that neither of us would be covered under his health care plan," Edwards said. "If you're 55 with cancer... good luck to you."
Edwards occasionally deviated from her prepared testimony, submitted a day ahead to the committee, which never mentioned McCain. It is unusual to hear such political talk during a policy hearing.
Republicans on the committee appeared frustrated as Edwards went on eight minutes beyond her allotted five-minute slot.
Edwards appeared as a senior fellow for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, which, she said, was one of the first think tanks to give a thorough review of McCain’s health plan.
Edwards avoided reporters, ducking into a back room during a break in the hearing and again after it adjourned.
Her reticence came the same day as an interview appeared in the Detroit Free Press in which she described how she has tried to cope with her husband’s 2006 affair and the recent press attention. She is visiting Detroit next month as part of an ongoing effort to focus on health care reform.
"The best thing for my children has been to lay low and to see public interest in this becomes less so it doesn't become a badge they have to wear," Edwards told the newspaper. "As a mother I worry about that."
When asked if she had forgiven her husband, Edwards responded, "I don’t want to feed the monster, if you don’t mind."
Edwards is undergoing treatment from inoperable cancer, and she has said she isn't sure whether she’ll live to see her youngest children become adults.
But her personal life didn't come up during her appearance on Capitol Hill.
Instead, she told the story of a 17-year-old girl in California who was denied a liver transplant by her health insurer — and died. It was the same tale her husband repeated often on the campaign trail.
She also spoke of the woman at a campaign event "who whispered in my ear," a single mother who had just found a lump in her breast but was frightened to have it checked out.
And Edwards argued with U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican, when he asked panelists about the costs of universal health care and how best to pay for it.
She suggested rolling back President Bush's tax cut on wealthy taxpayers.
Murphy responded that the country's wealthy already pay most of the nation's income taxes.
"That's an ideological argument," Edwards shot back.