Cindy McCain at Full Throttle

Cindy McCain: Her husband John McCain’s race for the White House may be losing steam, but she’s not. The presidential candidate’s wife speaks her mind.

By Paul Alexander

Cindy McCain’s New Campaign StrategyPretty, petite Cindy McCain sits snugly in the driver’s seat of a 2004 Cadillac sedan that’s been converted into a race car, one hand grasping the steering wheel, the other working the four-on-the-floor. Dressed in dark straight-leg jeans, tan sneakers, a cropped white denim jacket, and white polo shirt, her shoulder-length blond hair pulled into a ponytail and stuffed under a baseball cap, she casts an image distinctly different from her typical one of pastel dress with pearls — the standard-issue candidate’s wife uniform. It’s a crisp, clear April day, and McCain is decidedly not on the campaign trail. At the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Chandler, a suburb 18 miles outside Phoenix, she is doing what over the past three years she has come to love: negotiating a racecourse. But even as she rounds one curve after another, downshifting and upshifting, a cameraman is in the passenger seat filming her for a promotional campaign video. Because when your husband is fourth-term Arizona Senator John McCain and he’s running for president, everything you do is part of the message. Cindy does her best to ignore the cameraman. Finally, she pulls into a holding area, drops him off and speeds away again.Before long McCain moves on to another exercise, one that requires the driver to zigzag through a row of red plastic cones. This time, I join her. She jerks the steering wheel with such force that it feels as if the car could flip over. But McCain is in total control. After she has run the course, she looks in the rearview mirror to see whether she has toppled any cones. "I hate to knock one down," she says. "It messes things up. I like to keep things tidy."There have been times in her life that were anything but. In the early 1990s, McCain was addicted to painkillers. Her reliance on them ended once she finally discovered the cause of her back pain, but that didn’t stop her husband’s opponents during the 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina from distributing flyers depicting her as a drug addict. The smear campaign also fallaciously suggested that John McCain had "fathered a black child" with a prostitute. Even though Cindy was furious about what was happening, John chose not to dignify the allegations by responding. His refusal "to take the low road to the highest office in the land," as he put it in his concession speech, is widely thought to have cost him the nomination.This time, Cindy is heading into the campaign with a different attitude. She has since lost both of her parents and seen three of her four children leave home for school or military service. After her father’s death in 2000, she became chair of her family’s $300 million beverage company. Then, in 2004, she suffered a stroke and nearly died. The stroke occurred while she was out to lunch with some friends. "I started talking, and the next thing I knew, what was coming out of my mouth was just gibberish," she recalls. "My first thought was just to get out of there, but I couldn’t walk. One of my friends’ husbands actually picked me up and carried me to the car, then drove me to the hospital."But now Cindy McCain is back in the game. She has taken control of her business, her health, and her approach to politics. I have been covering the McCains since 1999, and I’ve never seen her so forthright. Gone is the quiet, supportive political spouse willing to remain in the shadows and look adoring; stepping forward is a new, confident, formidable woman. In July, for example, when fundraising fell well below expectations, staff was being let go and rumors were rife that John McCain was dropping out of the race, Cindy did not hesitate to blast back at her husband’s critics. "Listen, all Republicans are doing badly with fund-raising," she says. "The reason we are is because of the state of our party. To blame it on one particular candidate is simply not fair." She has been through this before; all campaigns have their ups and downs. But this time she’s not fretting over every negative news report. "Life is too short," she says. Her focus is more on the couple’s 19-year-old son Jimmy, a marine private first class preparing to leave for Iraq."I’ll be really honest — I have good days and bad days," she says. "There are days when I think, I can’t believe this. He’s a child.

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