She draws her husband into the family drama regardless of his schedule. His campaign bus delayed its climactic arrival at an airport hangar in Grand Rapids, Mich., as the McCains rejected an adamant sleepover request from their 15-year-old daughter, Meghan.
In a campaign that runs on claims of authenticity -- where the candidate promises to always tell the truth and make responsible choices -- Mrs. McCain attests that, yes, the man she lives with lives with his message. Even his van-full of former prisoners of war cannot make that case quite as convincingly.
"I am perfectly happy doing what I do," she says, "which is standing by his side."
In the years after his 1973 return from Vietnam, John McCain, already married and a father of three, began carving out another life for himself. It took a new turn with Cindy Hensley, a young woman with a pixie presence whom he met in Hawaii while working as the U.S. Navy liaison officer to the Senate. Their 1980 wedding at the luxurious Arizona Biltmore came shortly after McCain's divorce from his first wife, Carol, who was badly injured in a car accident while he was a prisoner of war. Within a year, McCain had retired from the Navy and by 1982 was going after a House seat in a Phoenix district. To speed his run, Mrs. McCain bought a home there in one day.
From the start, she struggled to be taken seriously. Seventeen years younger than her husband -- with long hair and braces on her teeth -- the 27-year-old was closer in age to her husband's House staffers than to McCain himself. She tried to fit in by going for beers with the staff and joining in when they made fun of her husband's quirks. But to some, she was prey in the talons of Washington's political raptors.
"A lot of people did not treat her with respect," remembers Jay Smith, McCain's early political adviser. "They dismissed her."
Mrs. McCain admits to her discomfort. "Our married life began almost as quickly as our public life did," she says. "I have not always accepted the high visibility that goes with it."
Despite her wariness over this world, she was instrumental in her husband's entry into politics. Her father had given John McCain a job in the family's beer distribution business -- which meant McCain could travel the state and give speeches after a couple minutes of industry P.R.
Her father also put up much of the money for McCain's first congressional campaign. Through all this, Mrs. McCain knew not only who the major players in Arizona were, but seemed to acutely sense who was a phony, who was kissing up to her husband, who had ulterior motives.
"She has great radar about people," says Torie Clarke, McCain's former press secretary. "At important times in his policy life, she's always been there."
But her ambitions were never political. Instead, she immersed herself in their children. "I have found people not really very interested in me because I stayed home with my children -- like somehow that's a failure," she says of her political spouse identity. "I find what I do more important than what they do."
Complications along the way
After straining her back by carrying her third child in a backpack, Mrs. McCain, then a senator's wife, went in for surgery. As she was coming out of the anesthesia the next day, she learned of a firestorm that would soon engulf her: The Keating Five scandal. "The resident walked in and threw a newspaper on the bed in a huffy way and said, `I guess your husband's not so great after all,' " she remembers. "It was just horrible. I was still hooked up to tubes -- I had no idea of the impact it would have."
The scandal focused on the propriety of McCain's dealings with contributor Charles Keating, questioning whether McCain and four other senators had improperly intervened with bank examiners on his behalf to help save Keating's struggling California savings and loan.
After a 16-month investigation into the matter, a Senate panel gave McCain what was widely viewed as a slap on the wrist, saying he had used "poor judgment."
During the investigation, questions also arose over whether McCain had reimbursed Keating for corporate and charter jet flights. All the flights in question ultimately were repaid. But Mrs. McCain, the family bookkeeper, held herself responsible as she searched for missing records of their travel payments. It had become her own political nightmare.
"I can vividly remember her poring through boxes of cancelled checks, trying to find evidence that these questionable trips had been paid for," says Smith. "She felt she had let him down."
What anguish Mrs. McCain felt, she did not show. When asked if anyone in the McCain camp broke down during the scandal, Clarke replied, "John, yes. Me, yes. Everybody else on the staff, yes. Cindy? Never."
Amid the controversy, Mrs. McCain took refuge in the American Voluntary Medical Team, a relief unit for Third World countries she founded in 1988. But she was losing control.