early and often

Cindy McCain, Meet Everyone. Everyone, Meet Cindy McCain.

Cindy McCain

Photo: Getty Images

John McCain’s presidential campaign is rather desperately lacking for youth and glamour. It badly needs to soften the affect of the Senator’s grim hawkishness without soft-pedaling his national-security credentials. And in the last 48 hours, it has had to find a defense against the New York Times’ semi-allegations that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist who had business before his Senate Commerce Committee.

Almost by accident, one answer has emerged to all these conundrums: Cindy McCain.

When Michelle Obama committed her “really proud” gaffe, John McCain at first looked ready to no-comment, but Cindy stepped in front of microphones to say, “I have and always will be proud of my country.” She quickly became the campaign’s go-to person for responding to Obama. When John McCain held his press conference to denounce the Times yesterday, Cindy was perfectly composed but also relaxed. Her smile, as Marc Ambinder pointed out, “wasn’t forced.” Cindy has always been one of McCain’s strongest assets, and, as the press is just beginning to notice, the campaign finally seems ready to let her speak publicly.

Cindy McCain has already taken a much stronger behind-the-scenes role in the campaign this time around than she did in 2000. Both McCains see this race as their chance to avenge the brutal tactics deployed against them then, when George W. Bush surrogates claimed, among other things, that the McCains’ adopted Bangladeshi daughter Bridget was a black child whom McCain had fathered out of wedlock. While John McCain may have publicly made peace with Bush since then, Cindy has admitted she keeps a “grudge list.” Cindy was also the one person McCain trusted completely while deciding how to pull his campaign out of the train wreck it had become by the summer of 2007. She was a key force behind the shakeup last July that sent longtime strategist John Weaver and campaign manager Terry Nelson packing, which ultimately led to a leaner McCain operation.

The members of the media who fell so heavily for John McCain in 2000 developed a bit of a crush on Cindy, too. Her sophisticated presence was hard to ignore as he slogged his way through otherwise gray visits to snowy New Hampshire town hall meetings. (Some reporters covering that run still recall how they riffed on lines from his stump speech to compose lascivious — and unpublished — odes to Cindy.) The story of how the McCains met — at a cocktail party in Hawaii when he was 43 and separated and she was 25 — only added to the Republicanism-with-a-wink that John McCain seemed to embody that year. And Cindy had a charming background: rodeo queen, cheerleader, beer-distributor heiress who turned down a chance to work in the family business so she could work with disabled children. The reporters who liked her then aren’t likely to hold her husband’s flip-flops and hawkishness against her now.

So here comes Cindy McCain, one tough cookie. Most Americans don’t know yet that Bridget McCain, who had a cleft palate as a baby, probably would have died if Cindy hadn’t taken her home from Mother Theresa’s orphanage in 1991. Or realize that Cindy kicked an addiction to Percocet and Vicodin 15 years ago. Or that she’s been through several miscarriages, a hysterectomy, surgery on her right arm from shaking too many hands during the 2000 campaign, and a serious stroke in 2004. Or that she has two sons in the military, including one just back from Iraq.

You’ve heard of the Oprah Effect for Barack Obama? John McCain’s going to get his bounce, too — once Cindy goes on Oprah. —Peter Keating

New: McCain Ascendant: His Many Blessings — Beyond Democratic Infighting

For a complete guide to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and, yes, John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.

Cindy McCain, Meet Everyone. Everyone, Meet Cindy McCain.