July 26, 2004 12:00 PM

Elizabeth Edwards is ready for the slings and arrows of the campaign trail. What she dreads is the junk food. “See this? says the wife of Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards 51 pointing at a platter of sugar cookies set out in a hotel room in New York City where she’s about to attend a star-studded fund-raiser “This is at every stop. My daughter Cate and I were going to do the South Beach diet.

That lasted three or four days. I suspect I’ll be dieting all my life.”

That just-one-of-the-gals openness—about seesawing dress sizes and a love of cheesy pop songs—may make Elizabeth, 55 the Democratic ticket’s most valuable player While Republicans are lining up to take swipes at her telegenic husband (some have called John a “Breck Girl”) they are giving d1 audits to Elizabeth a former bankruptcy lawyer who now serves as her husband’s closest advisor and image consultant (see box). “She’s smart and very aggressive for her partner. She is someone who will stop [John Edwards] from believing his own press ” says Mary Matalin atop wide to Dick Cheney.

A natural campaigner who has earned a reputation in Washington as a political strategist (during downtime she now prefers briefing books to light reading), Elizabeth wins fans with humor, joking that she dyes her hair so she doesn’t “look like John’s mother.” And there are the Edwardses’ two tow-headed younger children, Emma Claire, 6, and Jack, 4, who have captivated the media. Now that Mom is on the trail, they will spend much of their time with a nanny. (Cate, 22, a Princeton grad, will be interning at Vanity Fair in New York City after the election.) Meanwhile their mother is adjusting to life in the electoral big leagues. Rummaging through a closet full of discounted pantsuits from Marshalls and Saks Fifth Avenue after the Democratic ticket was announced, she asked staffers to vote on her wardrobe: “I’d hold up an outfit and they’d say yes or no.”

Bargain hunting for clothes and airfares—despite three houses (in Georgetown, D.C., and Raleigh and Figure Eight Island, N.C.) and the family’s multimillion—dollar net worth—is a habit Mary Elizabeth Anania picked up as a Navy brat whose family moved every few years. At University of North Carolina law school, she, not her future husband, was considered the star. Married in a $129 dress, she still wears the $11 ring he gave her, and the couple always celebrate their anniversary at Wendy’s, the spot where they went for their first one. The lean years were followed by success as lawyers and the birth of their children Wade and Cate. But once the kids were in school, Elizabeth put her family first, telling employers, “I do soccer practices and dental appointments.”

That family idyll was shattered in April 1996, when Wade was killed in a car accident at age 16. John and Elizabeth were devastated and went underground for about six months. Wade’s death also prompted John to launch a political career and Elizabeth to start hormone therapy to get pregnant at age 47. “We wanted to bring joy back into our house,” says Elizabeth. According to Cate, the new babies did just that. Emma Claire and Jack “make my parents so happy, and they’re really fun,” she says.

Since the pregnancies, Elizabeth’s weight has yo-yoed. “I’d done pretty well after Jack was born getting the weight off. Then the primary was a disaster,” she says. More important to her are the after-school programs she has set up in Wade’s name in North Carolina, a project she hopes to expand if the Kerry-Edwards ticket wins in November. An avid fan of decorating shows like Trading Spaces, Elizabeth has another task in mind—making over the vice president’s mansion. “Our home in Raleigh is an open house. All the kids come over,” she says. “I’d like to turn the vice presidential mansion into a warm home with kids.”

Bob Meadows. Jane Sims Podesta with the Kerry-Edwards campaign

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