By His Side

Cindy McCain leaves the campaign spotlight to her husband, but as his protector and trusted adviser, she's always there


WASHINGTON -- Cindy McCain has the drill down cold: She gazes adoringly at her husband, rocks to the technomusic at his events in perky pressed-knit suits and beams before taking two steps out of camera range so he dominates the pictures. She says nothing from the stage but is actively engaged, launching a visual charm offensive for her husband.

While the Tippers and Lauras seem to have retreated, Cindy McCain seems to be everywhere at all times -- nothing astonishing for the wife of a hard-charging presidential candidate, but in this woman's case, nonetheless remarkable. As the campaign fortunes of Arizona Sen. John McCain ride on the critical primaries of next week's Super Tuesday elections, Cindy McCain has abandoned what was once a deep reluctance about this bid -- and grudging acceptance of its reality -- to become an unwavering and constant presence at her husband's side.

"I had a lot of reservations about it at first," she says in a phone interview this week during her husband's cross-country campaign blitz. "But I knew John would never do this without me being fully onboard. For this race to happen, I'd have to be involved."

So this intensely private spouse has entered the towel-snapping atmosphere of the McCain campaign -- the lone female in the men's locker room that is his political brain trust. While she does not speak publicly when he is around, she believes her picture is worth several thousand words.

"People want to see me," she says. "I didn't expect that. I thought, `Well, I'm just kind of an ornament.' That's not really the case. People want to see how John and I interact together. I don't always talk, but that doesn't seem to be important. People want to see that we love each other."

When she does speak publicly about her husband, she portrays the Republican candidate as one who not only can survive the torture of five-and-a-half years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, but also can slide comfortably into his maroon Suburban on weekends. As the campaign seeks to make John McCain larger than life, she simply tries to make him human.

"He is involved in every way with these children," she says of their four kids on a radio ad. "He understands the importance of being there and being relied upon."

As she has from their first days together as a couple, when John McCain started his political career in her native Arizona, Mrs. McCain now figures at the heart of her husband's ambitions. On the trail, she handles the details -- Fed-Exing his shirts to the dry cleaners from the road and watching that he eats more than a hot dog, a Coke and a pack of Chuckles (his staple lunch for years in the Senate).

More than that, she has grilled campaign aides about his chances of winning and, to that end, advises him on whom to trust.

"She really understands the kind of effort her husband's putting forth," says campaign manager Rick Davis, noting that she now acts as McCain's lead surrogate when he cannot make a campaign appearance.

Despite an almost palpable effort to seem unlike Hillary Rodham Clinton, she admits to behind-the-scenes power. "I have the ability, I think, to make very good assessments about people -- I'm very protective of my husband," she says. Her judgments are heard. "I am," she notes knowingly, "the last one he talks to at night."

Varied path

Her own tale is complex. She started with a golden two-door Mercedes on the University of Southern California campus and ultimately found a Bangladeshi orphanage where she adopted her youngest child. The former junior rodeo queen and beer industry heiress has lived through tortured chapters, including a three-year addiction to painkillers where she took as many as 20 Percocet or Vicodin pills a day.

The fact that she is on the trail at all surprises those who have watched this 45-year-old Arizonan the longest. In her husband's 17-year congressional career, she visited Washington only once or twice a year, seeing him instead when he came home on weekends. She has raised their children on her own during the week, in the same house where she grew up and across the street from her parents.

Wary of a presidential bid at first, she had to be lobbied on a remote island along the Equator. During this 1998 trip in the Maldives, her husband convinced her that he had to run. Although she knew this campaign would upend their children's lives and open her to more questions about her own rough times, she finally agreed.

Her compromise is to keep up the appearance of a normal life from the road, arranging her children's car pools to and from their Phoenix private schools and sending them video e-mails nightly. When she gives speeches, Wendy Poole, the former flight attendant who assists her, guards her cell phone.

"It's never shut off," says friend Sharon Harper. "It rang when she was speaking, and she kind of looked up to Wendy to get word that everything was OK. That `On-Guard Mom' thing, it's always there."

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