John Edwards is still in the running.
But his campaign will be different from here on out.
On Thursday morning, as word spread that his wife, Elizabeth, has suffered an extremely serious recurrence of the cancer that struck her in 2004, there was broad speculation that Edwards would suspend his run for the 2OO8 Democratic nomination.
Instead, as reporters crowded around to record what many though would be the exit of the former North Carolina senator from the presidential contest, Edwards declared, "The campaign goes on. The campaign goes on strongly."
But, of course, the campaign will now be shadowed by a discussion about the health of Elizabeth Edwards. It is a discussion that both husband and wife are willing to engage in. And they will put it in perspective.
"Is this a hardship for us? It's yet another hurdle," says Elizabeth Edwards, who was diagnosed this week with what appears to be daunting case of bone cancer. "But I've seen people who are in really desperate shape."
Elizabeth Edwards went on to say that she felt "unbelievably important" for her husband's campaign to continue.
She is not being a "dutiful" political wife when she says this.
Elizabeth Edwards, who I have interviewed frequently and watched on many of the twists and turns of the presidential campaign trail, is a wholly engaged and very serious political player.
She believes in her husband's run for the 2OO8 nomination -- not merely because the candidate is her husband but because the campaign has embraced so many of her progressive values -- and she has influenced it profoundly.
Always more deeply and specifically critical of the Iraq War, Elizabeth Edwards has played a central role in moving her husband toward a more aggressively anti-war position. In the summer of 2OO5, before John Edwards apologized for his 2OO2 vote to authorize President Bush to take the country to war in Iraq, Elizabeth Edwards expressed support for Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain soldier who was then emerging as a leading war critic.
At a time when few prominent political figures were willing to step up and tell President Bush to meet with Sheehan and hear her anti-war views, Elizabeth Edwards wrote, "Whether you agree or disagree with every part, or any part, of what Cindy wants to say, you know it is better that the president hear different opinions, particularly from those with such a deep and personal interest in the decisions of our government. Today, another voice would be helpful. Cindy Sheehan can be that voice. She has earned the right to be that voice."
There is no question that John Edwards has become a stronger candidate as he has listened more to the advice of his wife than the consultants who, in 2OO4, prodded him to be too cautious and controlled. As someone who has seen the two of them together, I am convinced that John Edwards now relies on Elizabeth Edwards as his essential adviser.
That's good for him politically, and, frankly, it's good for progressives who want the Democratic presidential contest to feature a top-tier contender who speaks seriously about the need to advance economic and social justice at home and abroad.
If Elizabeth Edwards wanted John Edwards out of the presidential race, he would be out.
But she wants him to continue the campaign -- not merely as a bid for office but as a crusade to advance a different and more progressive vision of America. She is a true believer. And she will remain the greatest asset for John Edwards' candidacy. For better or worse, the drama surrounding her serious struggle with cancer will make the focus of the Edwards campaign on the need for fundamental health care reforms all the more meaningful.
Some will see that as inappropriate, perhaps even exploitive. But that's absurd. Elizabeth Edwards has a talent for downplaying her own ailments in a way that allows her to connect with people on a human level. And that connection will benefit the Edwards for President bid -- a run that, from here on out, will be more serious, more real and, very possibly, more viably because this couple has made the serious decision to continue with a campaign that is beginning to look more and more like a mission.
John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"