The modest, impassioned 'anti-Barbie'

Elizabeth Edwards - known for a good mind and good sense - takes her political skills to a larger stage.

Dressed in basic beige, with wash-and-wear hair and toddlers in tow, Elizabeth Edwards could be the average suburban mom - except that she's not.

Some analysts suspect she may be sharper than anyone on the presidential ticket. As a law student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Elizabeth Anania dazzled classmates, including future husband John Edwards, with her intelligence, humor, and grit.

A classmate recalls watching Elizabeth stop a professor cold after a 20-minute grilling on a case. "The goal was to humble her, and it didn't happen," says Glenn Bergenfield, an attorney in Princeton, N.J. John Edwards, seated a few rows behind the "raven-haired beauty," took note. They were married the weekend after both completed bar exams.

Now, as her husband's closest adviser, she defends his public image as sharply as she once defended herself: No goofy hats (or helmets), no stock shots of dancing at campaign events, and no "trophy" wife. Mr. Edwards describes his wife as his conscience. "The smartest lawyer I know is my wife, Elizabeth," he says.

Yet few women in public life have mastered the art of gentle self-deprecation as effectively as Mrs. Edwards, who calls herself the "anti-Barbie," and also, "a window to John."

Married to one of America's most successful trial lawyers, Mrs. Edwards could dress at the level of her bank account. Instead, she drives herself about town, carries her own bags, and chuckles about the time she had to duck into a thrift shop to replace a stained blouse before a campaign event. It's a personal style that fits a campaign anchored in John Edwards's life story of hardworking textile families in tough times. It also fits a job requirement of the wife of every American vice president: Don't upstage the first lady.

"It is important that the first lady and wife of the vice president get along publicly, and that is not always the case," says Craig Schermer, historian at the National First Ladies' Library in Canton, Ohio.

Elizabeth Edwards and Teresa Heinz Kerry have many life experiences in common, from a cosmopolitan childhood to sudden tragic losses: Mrs. Edwards lost a son, Wade, in a traffic accident in 1996; Heinz Kerry lost her first husband, GOP Sen. John Heinz, in a plane crash in 1991. Both see themselves as "sounding boards" in their husbands' campaigns.

Some political insiders say that Heinz Kerry's regard for Mrs. Edwards was a factor in the decision to choose John.

"She's an amazing woman.... She's suffered loss, and she didn't drown with it," Heinz Kerry said on an interview with CNN's Larry King Live last week.

But there are also differences. While Heinz Kerry speaks her mind on a wide range of subjects, from public policy to botox and her pre-nup agreement with John Kerry, Mrs. Edwards makes a point of keeping the focus on her husband.

"Elizabeth Edwards is extremely skilled, and clearly knows politics: She knows what to say and what not to say," says Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia, who recently introduced her at an event at the University of Virginia law school. "We're seeing more and more professional women who happen to be married to men who are in politics. They're learning to avoid the minefields that Hillary Clinton stepped in," he adds.

Both Heinz Kerry and Mrs. Edwards make a point of saying they do not intend to make policy along with their husbands - a clear reference to Hillary Clinton's high-profile role in managing healthcare reform in the Clinton administration's first term.

In many ways, Elizabeth Edwards's story is as compelling as her husband's. Her decision to have two more children, after the death of her son, speaks to the high value of family in her life.

"Elizabeth and I were 30 and 26 when our first son Wade was born, and it is a glorious fact that Elizabeth was 50 when she had our beautiful son Jack," writes Edwards in his book, "Four Trials." Daughter Emma Claire is 6; daughter Cate recently graduated from Princeton.

The eldest daughter of a decorated Navy pilot who flew missions over North Korea and China, Elizabeth spent her childhood on the move, living in Japan, Florida, and Washington. It's one reason she so values home and family life, friends say. Her father, known for once flying an unarmed cargo plane like a fighter jet to avoid incoming MiGs, could hold a room with his stories, often hilarious. It's a talent Elizabeth shares.

"From the time she was a toddler, she was extremely impassioned, blazingly intelligent," says her brother, Jay Anania, now a New York film director. He recalls that while other kids sang cartoon theme songs, she would sing "Summertime," in perfect pitch.

But he adds that her capacity to excel at anything was not without effort. During a recent trip to Florida to help their mother, Elizabeth worked all through the night, while the family slept. "She says rest is an overrated activity," he says. "I thought she would be the one who was tired, but at the end, it was me."

After law school, Elizabeth practiced bankruptcy law and volunteered for community activities such as the PTA. The Edwardses' Raleigh home was a neighborhood hub, with Elizabeth holding court, friends say. Teenagers liked talking to her, especially around a box of warm doughnuts from Krispy Kreme, the unofficial state food. (An aide reports that she used to buy them for Wade's soccer games, hot from the oven, and always brought a box for the other team.)

Family note that she always talked to her children like adults, without the $10 words. "No matter how young they are, she still speaks to them like adults, as in: 'You're responsible for putting this back here. You know that, and the reason is, if you don't, some one else will have to,' " says Mr. Anania. "She loves being a mother. It's a role that she esteems more highly than any other, despite the fact that she is extremely active in other things."

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