Elizabeth Anania Edwards, who became a national figure in her fight against cancer and as a partner in her husband's political career, died Tuesday afternoon. She was 61.

By Rob Christensen

McClatchy News Service

RALEIGH, N.C. — Elizabeth Anania Edwards, who became a national figure in her fight against cancer and as a partner in her husband's political career, died Tuesday afternoon. She was 61.

Edwards spent much of her life as a little-known Raleigh lawyer and mother. But that all changed when her husband, John Edwards, entered politics as a U.S. senator, two-time presidential candidate, and Democratic nominee for vice president.

Her husband's career propelled her into the spotlight as a smart, plain-spoken wife who was a key adviser to her husband.

She later became a figure of sympathy as she battled breast cancer and dealt with her husband's infidelity. And, in the last few years, her public image shifted again: the scorned woman whose husband fathered a child with another woman.

She and John Edwards separated at the beginning of 2010 but remained close.

Through it all, Edwards helped change the way political wives were viewed. She was the self-proclaimed "anti-Barbie" who was comfortable sitting in on campaign strategy meetings, chatting with Oprah Winfrey on TV, or even going head-to-head with conservative columnist Ann Coulter.

She brought a similar self-possession to the media attacks that circulated around her in the wake of news about her husband's infidelity.

"I'm 5 feet 2, dark-haired and could hardly be further from the Barbie figure," Edwards once said. "I think of myself as a fairly serious person."

President Barack Obama talked to John Edwards and their daughter Cate on Tuesday afternoon, saying he admired Elizabeth Edwards' "tenacious" advocacy for improving health care and fighting poverty.

It was at the University of North Carolina's law school that Elizabeth Anania met Johnny Edwards, three years her junior.

He was the pseudo redneck who had been out of the South only once — on a trip to Washington. He had few intellectual interests. She was a devotee of Henry James and a politically active liberal Democrat.

He was the soft-spoken, get-along guy. She was an outspoken, hot-tempered Italian-American who dominated every social situation. She was also regarded as more of a catch, drawing the attention of many of the young men.

They were married a few days after they graduated and passed the bar exam. She kept her last name until her husband prepared to run for the Senate.

Although John Edwards had the high-powered legal career, their marriage was one of intellectual equals. She became his most trusted adviser in both law and politics. She was a major influence on his life, just as Hillary Clinton was for Bill Clinton.

Edwards could have had a high-profile law career like her husband's, but she did what many women do: She balanced her career with the demands of rearing two children _ Wade, born in 1979, and Cate, born in 1982.

She still practiced law, working as a bankruptcy lawyer for the firm of Merriman, Nicholls & Crampton, in the state Attorney General's Office, and as an instructor at the UNC law school.

During big trials, John Edwards often talked to her by phone, asking her to critique the day's events.

The family's life took a dark turn in 1996 when Wade, 16, was killed in an automobile accident on Interstate 40 between Raleigh and the North Carolina coast.

The couple were crippled emotionally by Wade's death. John Edwards stopped working for six months and she quit practicing law for good.

She was pregnant with Emma Claire when her husband ran for the Senate in 1998, defeating Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth.

Edwards was an active participant in her husband's political career, serving as a sounding board for nearly a decade as he climbed the ladder, which culminated with his selection as the Democratic vice presidential running mate of Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

She became a popular figure on the presidential campaign trail in 2004, seen as someone approachable, less glamorous and more down to earth than her husband. She would make fun of herself as someone without perfectly coiffed hair or a stylish outfit, as someone who struggled with her weight.