By Wade Rawlins
GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - John Edwards seemed more like "a spectator than a participant" at a 2007 meeting during which his wife, Elizabeth, railed at two political donors for maintaining ties to his mistress, according to testimony on Wednesday at the former senator's trial.
Jennifer Palmieri, a former campaign worker who is now White House deputy director of communications, said Elizabeth Edwards was angry that Fred Baron and his wife, Lisa, had taken Rielle Hunter shopping in Beverly Hills and were continuing a relationship with her.
"Rielle was a loose cannon and Fred and Lisa thought it was important to keep the relationship going," Palmieri said, in describing the 2007 meeting at a hotel in Davenport, Iowa, at which she was present.
"Elizabeth just wanted Rielle out of their lives entirely," she said.
Edwards, 58, is accused of violating federal election laws by soliciting more than $900,000 in illegal campaign contributions, mainly from heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, as he pursued the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
The federal government contends that the one-term North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee sought the money to conceal the affair, knowing revelations that he was cheating on his cancer-stricken wife and had fathered Hunter's child would destroy his campaign.
At issue is whether Edwards knew details about efforts by campaign supporters to keep the affair from being publicized during the campaign, or only became aware of it later.
The government says the money should have been reported as political donations because it was meant to protect Edwards' image and candidacy. The defense argues that the payments were from one private third party to another and should not be characterized as campaigned contributions.
Edwards has pleaded not guilty. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count if convicted
Palmieri told the court that the October 2007 meeting was an emotional scene, but Edwards himself said little. "He seemed more like a spectator than a participant," she said. "I found it unnerving."
When the campaign got notice that the National Enquirer was preparing to publish an article about the affair later in October 2007, Palmieri recalled telling Edwards, "Don't think if this is true that you'll be able to survive this."
Palmieri said a big part of Edward's appeal as a candidate was his family and his relationship with his wife, Elizabeth.
The witness said she first met Hunter, a campaign videographer, in 2006 and thought her demeanor was unprofessional.
"She did concern me," Palmieri said. "She didn't behave with the professional distance that other staff normally had. She was overly familiar with Senator Edwards."
(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Xavier Briand)