If the jibes about his haircuts, house and hypocrisy undercut John Edwards’ credibility as an advocate for the downtrodden, the strongest counter he has is his wife, Elizabeth, by his side.

She’s been his closest adviser and, by many accounts, a strongly progressive one, encouraging John’s antipoverty campaigns, his support for universal health care and his recanting of his 2002 Senate vote authorizing the Iraq invasion. She’s also charged him to “speak plainly” so that people see “his decency, compassion, intellect and determination,” as she said to radio host Ed Schultz in Chapel Hill in April.

“There’s no question that John Edwards has become a stronger candidate as he has listened more to the advice of his wife than to the consultants who, in 2004, prodded him to be too cautious and controlled,” writes The Nation’s John Nichols.

But it was her passionate insistence that John remain in the race, and she with him, after she was diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer, that raised her portrayal of him above the usual politics. Staying in was “unbelievably important,” Elizabeth said, because what John stands for is vital for the country, as is his ability to convince people that they should stand with him. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be him [as president],” she joshed with Schultz. “It just has to be someone like him.”

If their campaign were only about winning, she has said, “well, honestly, what would be the point?” No, it’s about the kids in Iraq and the parents, the poor back home and women who have breast cancer but no health insurance.

“I know that I would not have made the decision about continuing campaigning for change if it was about purely personal political success,” she said. “At the end of our lives we will not be judged by what the highest office was that we attained in our lifetime…. We will each be judged by the mark we left on the lives of others.”

Elizabeth’s own health is a wild card in the race, obviously. So far, she’s strong and on the campaign trail, her husband’s best advocate.