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From campaign dates to play dates

To us, she's the Democratic running mate's wife; to 6-year-old Emma Claire and 4-year-old Jack, she's Mom. And those two roles aren't easy to reconcile.

Published October 31, 2004

SARASOTA - Emma Claire has lost a tooth. That was Monday, her mother thinks. Today it is Wednesday. Twelve days until the election. Four days since she saw her kids.

"No," she says. "It must have been Sunday. She called and I was between things and I talked to Jack. . . ."

Jack is 4. Emma Claire is 6. Their mother, Elizabeth Edwards, is 55. She is trying to nudge the direction of the free world, and be their mom. She's between one thing and another thing. She has 15 minutes until the next thing. Twelve days until the election. Ten days to Halloween. Three days until she sees her children again.

"I talked to Jack," she is saying. "He said, "I don't miss you.'

"I said, "That's too bad, because I miss you.' "

Jack told her, "Well, I miss you a little bit."

She has just finished revving a crowd in a crammed Sarasota bookstore. The women - they were almost entirely women - cheered and swooned in their "Moms Opposing Bush" and "Women 4 Kerry-Edwards" buttons, nodding and reaching for her in a familiar, you're-one-of-us kind of way.

She had her mother in the front row and her 22-year-old daughter, Cate, at her side. She entered with the speakers blasting We Are Family, and when she left, the women tore the velvet ropes down.

It was like this in Pensacola yesterday and in Panama City before that, and it likely would be no different in Wisconsin this afternoon, or Pennsylvania tomorrow.

Days like this she thinks, let's take the vote now. But then she thinks, maybe I can persuade one more person. Florida is a dead heat. Her husband is the vice presidential nominee. She carries this message, these numbers: 15-million women work full-time and live in poverty, 6-million Americans will lose overtime pay, 616,000 children in Florida have no health insurance.

The tooth that Emma Claire lost on Monday was tooth No. 2.

Jack carries numbers with him, too.

"He said, "It's two days until I see Daddy and six days until I see you,' and I said, "That's right,' and he said, "That's good. Because I really miss you.' "

* * *

Not so many years ago, she sat with her husband in a quiet house. In 1996, they were just two lawyers, two parents. He made a fortune in personal injury law and coached soccer. She worked on bankruptcy cases and made gingerbread houses. They had two children, Wade and Cate, and a basketball hoop in the yard.

Then Wade, 16, was killed by a wind out of nowhere that swept his Jeep off a North Carolina highway. There was no understanding it, no litigating it or undoing it. They sat in the stillness and watched the Weather Channel, on mute. They lived this way for months.

Then they turned the sound up a little, then watched a little news. Then they made two decisions that changed everything.

Elizabeth quit her job and started taking fertility drugs. She wanted some joy back in their lives. Emma Claire was born when she was 48. Jack, when she was 50.

John went into politics. Wade would have liked that. He used to tell his friends that his dad would be a senator someday. Whether John made the choice before or after his son's death, he won't say.

* * *

When they are alone together now, which is not often, sometimes she thinks about those choices and where they have brought them.

They meet up wherever they can around the country, flying the kids in when they aren't in school, negotiating with a hotel owner to keep the pool open late, bouncing them on their hips on stages with blaring music and lazy balloons.

Right now Jack and Emma Claire are at home in Washington. Their father is on a bus tour in Ohio. Mrs. Edwards is in a quiet room above Sarasota News & Books with Cate, who is eating ice cream, and her 81-year-old mother, who is just listening, and busy people scribbling notes and looking at watches.

"It strikes us what a trajectory we're on," she says. "Then I see him speak and interact with people, and I'm convinced he is where he is supposed to be.

"I realize our family makes sacrifices, but we feel like we are doing it for the kids."

She grew up in a military family, moving a dozen times before she turned 18. Her dad, a Navy pilot, was gone a lot, so she knows how that feels. As she's saying this, her mother is nodding.

When Wade and Cate were growing up, their father was often absent while he was trying big cases. Cate hears this, and she nods too.

They were the kind of parents who couldn't stand to vacation without the kids. They tried it once, in 1980. "After three days, we went home," Mrs. Edwards says. "This is hard for us, and it's a little bit hard for them."

But there are plenty of kids growing up with parents gone for months to Iraq, she says, so their situation is not so special. She does what any mom would do: She watches them for weird behavior, mood swings, sleeplessness. So far, so good.

She manages a strange kind of chaos as she mothers them in this very public way. Thinking back on it, it makes her laugh.

There was the time they were in Iowa and she was wearing a microphone and telling Emma Claire to please sit still while Emma Claire was sliding right out of her chair - Mrs. Edwards does a nice impression of this - and she was still for a half-second and then slipping and squirming again, and the candidate's wife said into the microphone, "That's it, Emma, we're outta here."

There was the time she spilled juice on her shirt and had to stop at a thrift store for a $2.99 sweater set, and the famous thumb-sucking photo that made the front of the New York Times (Jack never sucked his thumb before, she insists). And then there was what is known as the Cheesehead Incident.

"In Wisconsin, someone gave them cheesehead hats, and it immediately occurred to them that those were battering rams," she says. They were all onstage as John Edwards, now the running mate, gave a speech. "So there's several thousand people there, and no one's paying attention to John Kerry's illustrious career. And I'm trying to walk between them."

She gets out of her chair to illustrate, swiveling her hips as if weaving between cheeseheaded children. Sadly, no photographers record the moment. Cate is laughing from the corner.

"You think you are so subtle," Cate says.

"Oh," Mrs. Edwards says, "I am not subtle."

* * *

They are Washington kids. They go to school with the children of politicians, journalists, campaign staffers. There's a certain normalcy to this lifestyle.

"Jack has a 4-year-old girlfriend," Mrs. Edwards says. "It's lasted longer than most marriages. . . . Her father is in the media. So Jack says, "My daddy is in Iowa,' and she says, "My daddy is in Iowa, too.' "

This is normal to them. People go to Iowa.

They understand what the election is about, if not how important it is. They know the characters and recognize the campaign signs. Once, Jack saw a "W" sign and asked, "What's that?"

"That's for George W. Bush," his mother said.

Jack said, "Ouch."

They know that the election is Nov. 2, and that Nov. 2 is two days after Halloween.

In their other life, Mrs. Edwards made Halloween costumes every year: Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, E.T., Cinderella. Some, Cate points out, were better than others.

The best, all agree, was the time Wade dressed up as a golf course. Mrs. Edwards planted grass seed in cardboard, added water and waited.

This year, for the second year, she took the kids to the store and told them to just pick something. Campaigning in Chicago, they found a spare moment and a Disney store. Jack picked the Power Ranger. Emma Claire picked Mulan, the Disney princess.

They will go trick-or-treating with their father. They'll pack their costumes and find a neighborhood wherever he is campaigning. Mrs. Edwards wonders out loud if television cameras and the Secret Service will follow them, the way they followed them to Wendy's for their anniversary.

This cracks Cate up. "The people will say, "Ooh, you're dressed as John Edwards and his kids - nice costume!' "

Maybe it will look like a stunt, but it is not a responsibility they want to delegate. Mrs. Edwards has figured out that campaigning, as far as her kids are concerned, is about promises. They can handle the disorder, as long as they know when it ends.

"They need to feel secure," she says. They get that by having their parents home every day, or by knowing that they'll be there when they say they will.

She was in Cincinnati on her way to New York when she promised them that, between things, she'd read them a bedtime story and take them to school. Then the last flight out of Cincinnati was canceled. No problem, the campaign workers said, fly on to New York.

You don't understand, Mrs. Edwards said, and she rented a car. She made it home by morning, in time to eat breakfast with them and drive them to school. Then she flew to New York.

"There has to be a certainty to it," she said.

They can call her whenever they want to. But when she gets lonely for them, she tries not to reach for the phone. It's too disruptive for them, she says. She plans her calls in advance.

She was there for the first day of school. For Emma's parent-teacher conference. But there are limits. Jack's teacher conference was scheduled for the last week in October.

The last week in October?

"He's 4," she says. "I said, "Unless we're on a terrible spiral downhill, can we wait two weeks?' "

* * *

At the end of the day, she does not seek out a quiet place. She can't stand to listen to music, or to be alone in the silence. That makes her mind wander back to the time when it felt like all the joy had been sucked from the house. She thinks about Wade every day, but she can't go back to those empty months after he died. Back then, she said she never wanted to see her husband unhappy again. She says she can't exactly tell if he's happy now. She wonders if a person can be happy and be so tired.

As for her, she is happier when she is busy, outrunning the silences. Alone in a hotel room, she'll play Boggle or surf the Internet late into the night. She reads the most vicious Republican Web sites she can find to see what they are saying about her husband. She fights the insomnia until it gives in, and then starts the next day running again. She's between one thing and another thing. She always is.

She'll see her kids on Saturday, somewhere. Maine, maybe. She doesn't know. But it will be Saturday, because it has to be. Because Jack is counting. Six, five, four . . .

- Kelley Benham can be reached at 727 893-8848 or Times researchers Cathy Wos and Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which used information from news reports and the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

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