RALEIGH, N.C. – Two weeks after a devastating revelation sent her husband into political exile, Elizabeth Edwards isn't getting the steady sympathy usually afforded to a woman scorned.
Instead, she's faced criticism from dedicated Democrats who think she was too willing to keep the affair a secret to help John Edwards' political ambitions, as well as her own.
At a time when she was expected to hold a prominent role in pushing an agenda of improved health care for Americans, she stands silent. While fellow Democrats converge in Denver to nominate Barack Obama for president, Edwards remains in seclusion in North Carolina.
It seems an odd way to treat a woman with incurable cancer wronged by a cheating husband, the latest in a series of deep hardships in life that includes the death of a teenage son.
But some former followers have questioned the recklessness of keeping the affair under wraps even though her husband — a former U.S. senator, two-time presidential candidate and the 2004 vice presidential nominee — said he confessed the affair in 2006, before the campaign began in earnest the next year.
"I think she's complicit," said Brad Crone, a Raleigh-based Democratic consultant. "Obviously, she knew. While she's the victim, she clearly didn't stand in the way of the cover-up."
It wasn't until earlier this month that John Edwards acknowledged publicly he'd had an affair with Rielle Hunter, a rookie filmmaker hired by his political action committee.
On a liberal blog that Elizabeth Edwards frequents, she explained why she stayed silent after her husband told her of the affair: "This was our private matter, and I frankly wanted it to be private because as painful as it was I did not want to have to play it out on a public stage as well."
Many people have come to know Elizabeth Edwards, 59, as a more forthright, revealing woman.
She wrote a memoir in 2007 that brought readers into the most wrenching moments of her life — the death of the couple's 16-year-old son and her 2004 breast cancer diagnosis. An attorney who worked in private practice and also taught at the University of North Carolina's law school, she first found out about the cancer the day after her husband and John Kerry lost their bid for the White House four years ago.
She has always had a passion for politics. Known for routinely writing about health care policy on the Internet, she has served as a visiting fellow at Harvard, where she held discussions with students and gave a speech after her husband dropped from the presidential race earlier this year. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama said in June he would be "partnering" with her on health care policy, and she was expected to serve as a campaign voice to challenge Republican candidate John McCain on the issue.
Yet during a visit to North Carolina two weeks after Edwards admitted to cheating on his wife, Obama didn't mention Elizabeth Edwards — or her husband.
"It's a setback for both of them," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who helped President Clinton through his cheating scandal. "The question for her — as well as for him — is what is their foundation? What gives them a platform to engage in public issues?
"Their big challenge is convincing people that they will continue to be active in politics and they're going to continue to have a voice."
In a post on the liberal blog Daily Kos, where Edwards has her own diary, she pleaded for privacy and later seemed to explain why she stuck by her spouse and his presidential ambitions.
"An imperfect man with a truly progressive vision who spoke to and for those whom others ignored? Yes, that is who I supported," she wrote. "An imperfect man who had come to face his own imperfections and was seeking to redeem himself to those closest to him? Yes, that is who I supported."
Some responded to the affair with words of kindness, while others angrily suggested that keeping the secret was no less a sin that the one committed by her philandering husband.
"She knew she should not have participated in him running for president with this bomb waiting to go off. She did. She kinda loses my sympathy," wrote one poster.
"I believe we are all owed a huge apology, not self-serving claims for pity by both John and Elizabeth Edwards, who both knew about the affair and both decided to go forward and seek the Democratic candidacy, regardless of the Titanic risk," wrote another.
Elizabeth Edwards is famously a denizen of the Internet. But she has not posted under her own name at Daily Kos since that day, nor has she posted anything on the Web site of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington where she writes about health care.
A spokeswoman for the center, Andrea Purse, said Elizabeth Edwards still has a job there, but declined to comment further about her future role. Both Elizabeth and John Edwards have refused several requests for an interview.
Since her husband's admission, the only window into what Elizabeth Edwards has been thinking came from a People magazine interview with her brother and a close friend. They said she decided not to leave her husband, in part, because she is a mother of two young children fighting a cancer that has spread to her bone and cannot be cured.
"There was anguish — excruciating anguish — for her in dealing with this," Hargrave McElroy, a friend, told the magazine. "She was angry and furious and everything, but at one point she had to make a choice: Do I kick him out, or do we have a 30-year marriage that can be rebuilt."
If the story was engineered to defend Edwards' decision, it has failed to create an outpouring of understanding.
"I thought it was very naive on both their parts," said Betsy Wells, who was an Edwards delegate at the Democratic convention four years ago and worked for each of his three campaigns for office. "It would be very sad if he were the nominee of our party right now."