BOSTON – At first glance, the Elizabeth Edwards who was scheduled to introduce her husband to the nation Wednesday night seemed perfect for this packaged, controlled convention.

In photo opportunities, she gazes adoringly at the vice presidential candidate. On the stump, she stays on message, offering the occasionally funny aside about her weight problems or her two youngest children, but mostly talking about how great her husband is.

In interviews, she explains that her role is to be a “window” into John Edwards. She’s not the kind of newsmaker who would tell a reporter to “shove it,” as Teresa Heinz Kerry did earlier this week.

It sounds like traditional stuff, and that’s the point: Elizabeth Edwards isn’t your typical political wife, but she can act like one.

“Sure, Elizabeth can do “soft and adoring,’ ” said Elaine Marshall, North Carolina’s secretary of state and a fellow Democrat. “That’s because she’s smart enough to know when to do “soft and adoring.”‘

In other words, there’s more than a little calculation behind the potential second lady’s public persona, a method to her self-effacing comments about dyeing her hair and dieting. Every time she mentions how youthful he looks at 51 compared with her lived-in 55, she’s reminding audiences that they’re happily married – no womanizing problems here.

Every time she talks about shopping for bargains at Target or carrying her new Secret Service detail while grocery shopping, she’s reminding people that despite his fortune, John Edwards is a real person too.

Behind the scenes, she’s her husband’s chief adviser, the one who listened to the earliest versions of his acceptance speech, makes sure his schedule includes time with their three children and polices his staff to ensure that there are never any awkward photos of him in, say, a protective “bunny suit” at Cape Canaveral, as John Kerry suffered Monday.

They met in law school nearly 30 years ago, when she was the one everybody watched enter a room. Classmates say she was the smartest student in their class, a woman who raised her hand often and always seemed to know the answer before anyone else, including – occasionally – her professors.

She was a talented lawyer in her own right, the family intellectual who specialized in bankruptcy law but focused as much on her children and her husband as her cases. He was the star, the one winning multimillion-dollar verdicts. Together, they carved out a comfortable life that included family dinners every night, great seats at University of North Carolina basketball games and a beach house on exclusive Figure Eight Island.

Then Wade died, at age 16, in a 1996 car accident. John Edwards quit his law practice and ran for the U.S. Senate. His wife stopped working, took Edwards as her last name and underwent a hormone regimen to get pregnant again. She gave birth to two more children at age 48 and 50, Emma Claire and Jack.

“She is a tough, tough, tough woman,” said David Kirby, a family friend. “No one should doubt that she has strong opinions and a serious backbone.”

So far in the Kerry-Edwards campaign, she’s been careful to show only glimpses of that. During her husband’s presidential campaign, she told reporters that she thought discussion of him as a vice presidential candidate was demeaning, a sort of back-handed compliment meant to lessen him in the eyes of voters. In an interview broadcast Wednesday on CBS, she said her husband offered a much more optimistic view of the world than the man he hoped to replace, Vice President Dick Cheney.

Voters can expect to see that kind of political candor from her over the next four months, as she campaigns with her husband and solo. But it’s likely to come in small doses, surrounded by plenty of her more typical personal candor.

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