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Cindy McCain at Full Throttle

The woman behind Sen. John McCain is back in the game.
By Paul Alexander

Cindy McCain's New Campaign Strategy

Pretty, 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. But he's doing what he wants, and he's good at it."

At 53, McCain has a new sense of urgency, of perspective. "Life experience changes you," she muses. "When we started all this, I was 26, 27 years old. I was very naive. What life has taught me is that things aren't always as you see them; you need to be aware. Politics does that to you."

Healing After Her Stroke

The day before our outing at the racecourse, McCain and I settle onto the terrace of her new home, located off a main drag in one of Phoenix's newer neighborhoods. Each room in the sprawling, well-appointed condominium is tidy in the extreme, with not an Indian throw rug or a campaign memento out of place. The family moved here late last year; it's the same size as their previous home in an older part of the city, but easier to care for because Cindy no longer has to oversee any yard work or outside maintenance. The transition to the condominium was difficult; the McCains had taken over Cindy's childhood home when they married, so she had lived there all of her life. Only recently did she work up the nerve to drive by the old place, which, she was startled to see, had been all but razed by the new owners.

Today, wearing a simply cut pink cotton dress with a single strand of pearls, McCain looks toned and healthy -- thanks, she believes, to exercise (an hour a day of weights or cardio), diet (no more salt or sugar), and some quality time behind the wheel.

"It's called drift racing," she says of her hobby, adding that her elder son, Jack, bought her professional driving lessons for her 50th birthday. "It was three years ago, right after my stroke. I was really hesitant. I thought, well, I'm weak. But he said, 'Mom, I want to do this with you. You can do this. It'll be good for you.'"

It's not about speed, she says. "It's this new Japanese style. Basically, it's skidding and spinning around," she explains, "so that you don't, number one, roll; number two, skid off the track; and number three -- you know -- screw your car up. It's really fun." And, as it turned out, great rehabilitation as well, "both mentally and physically, because I had to use everything I was having trouble using."

McCain shows almost no signs of permanent damage from her stroke, which has been attributed to her failure to take her blood pressure medication regularly. "I was feeling fine, so I only took the medication once in a while," she notes. In conversation, she will occasionally have trouble remembering certain facts, especially from the recent past, and if you look closely you realize she cannot make her right hand into a complete fist, which has affected her handwriting, if not her ability to grasp a gearshift knob. "It's not bad," she says, describing the damage to her hand. "I can function. I have short-term memory loss. I can remember all the major details of my life, but I sometimes can't remember what happened last week."

In the immediate wake of the stroke, McCain's prospects did not look so good. Her right leg was dragging, and she had no use of her right arm. After a few months of physical rehabilitation, she decided to start hiking the trails behind Squaw Peak Mountain, which is visible in the near distance from the terrace. Then she announced that she was going to Coronado, a manicured resort town in San Diego Bay. "I'm going to take the summer, and I'm going to fix myself," she told her family. She stayed for four and a half months. "My husband was not happy with me," she recalls. "He didn't understand ... but it was a good thing for me to do."

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