05/15/2012 04:52 EDT | Updated 07/15/2012 05:12 EDT

John Edwards corruption trial: All sordid sleaze, all the time

WASHINGTON - They are the types of revelations that seem lifted from the plot of an especially sleazy prime-time soap opera.

An ambitious politician, keen to be president even as his extramarital girlfriend carries his child and his wife of 33 years battles terminal cancer.

A wealthy, elderly benefactor, unknowingly writing regular cheques to support the mistress, who's been dismissed as a "crazy slut" by the man who hopes to occupy the Oval Office.

An ailing wife with a "volcanic" temper who stages a public, breast-baring tantrum when she learns of the affair — but still wants her straying husband to become president.

The corruption trial of John Edwards, the one-time Democratic presidential hopeful who was John Kerry's running mate in 2004, has rivetted Americans for weeks with tales that are stranger, and even more sordid, than fiction.

Edwards, 58, is facing charges of violating campaign finance regulations by funnelling money from his campaign to conceal his affair with his girlfriend, Rielle Hunter, as he made a run for the White House in 2007. He could face up to 30 years in prison if convicted.

It's been a dizzying and spectacular fall from grace for Edwards, a former successful trial lawyer who became a respected politician whose pet cause was fighting poverty. He also got high marks, and a national profile, for his months as Kerry's running mate, when his more folksy, down-to-Earth style served as a welcome contrast to Kerry's perceived patrician chilliness.

Within three years after that moment in the sun, Edwards was immersed in a torrid affair with Hunter as he planned his own run for president in 2008.

Prosecutors allege he slipped more about US$1 million from two wealthy donors, 101-year-old banking heiress Bunny Mellon and Texas lawyer Fred Baron, into a slush fund used to cover up the affair. Baron contributed almost $320,000 while Mellon doled out another $750,000 in funds that resulted in an upscale life for Hunter, including being ensconced in a mansion in Santa Barbara, California.

Edwards, a telegenic politician once mocked only for his attention to his notoriously expensive hairstyle, has denied any knowledge that those campaign contributions were going to a slush fund.

In the weeks since the proceedings got under way in Greensboro, N.C., federal prosecutors have paraded through an array of witnesses who have painted a chilling portrait of a man unable to grasp how much political and personal jeopardy his extramarital conduct had placed him in.

Even after he dropped out of the Democratic presidential race in late January 2008, an adviser testified last week, Edwards instructed his people to ensure that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama knew he wanted to be considered as a running mate. Hunter was nine months pregnant at the time.

Failing that, he allegedly told Leo Hindery, he'd be happy to serve as attorney general in a Democratic administration.

Instead, Hindery warned the Obama and Clinton teams about Edwards' secrets.

The disgraced senator's lawyers have opened their defence this week.

Edwards' biggest supporter, his daughter Cate, was slated to testify Tuesday in defence of her father, and was reportedly set to delve into the enduring love between her parents despite the Hunter affair. She didn't end up on the stand, and is expected to testify later in the week. A tearful Cate Edwards fled the courtroom two weeks ago during testimony about her late mother's reaction upon learning of Edwards' infidelities.

The court heard how Elizabeth Edwards — who was in the midst of a second battle with breast cancer, this one terminal — blew her stack after the National Enquirer reported her husband was cheating on her.

Former campaign adviser Christina Reynolds told the court about a fight at the airport in Raleigh, N.C., in October 2007 in which an apoplectic Elizabeth Edwards confronted her husband, ripping open her shirt and baring her chest.

Edwards' defence team said he didn't come clean about the affair to avoid hurting his ailing wife and his children. In testimony on Monday, the pollster for his 2008 campaign described Elizabeth Edwards as "calling the shots" and encouraging her husband to remain in the race even after she learned of Hunter.

"He acquiesced to Elizabeth Edwards making decisions," Harrison Hickman testified. "She took the lead and he deferred to her."

In testimony earlier Tuesday, John Moylan, a close friend of Edwards, said the presidential wannabe seemed genuinely surprised when informed by Mellon, in August 2008, that she'd discovered her cheques had been going to former Edwards aide Andrew Young, who had pretended at one point to be the father of Hunter's baby.

"I believe he was as surprised to hear it as I was," Moylan said.

Mellon raised it with the men the day after Edwards admitted publicly to the affair, but denied paternity of Hunter's infant daughter.

Moylan said he recalled Edwards telling Mellon: "Bunny, you're not to be sending money to anyone."

That money, and whether it constituted unreported campaign donations, is at the heart of the Edwards trial.

It's still unclear whether Edwards will take the stand in his own defence. His daughter, Cate, has been by his side almost daily since the trial began, entering the court and leaving with him, and taking her place directly behind him during the proceedings.