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Cindy McCain: rodeo queen to first lady?

Both privilege and challenge have marked her life, and now Mrs. McCain could follow her husband to the White House.

By Staff writer / September 2, 2008

Cindy McCain, wife of Republican Presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, speaks during the first day of the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN

Mary Knox Merrill / Staff

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New York

The Corvette pace car at the Pocono 500 roars to a stop at Victory Lane, the door opens, and out steps a petite blonde in white, fitted jeans, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

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“How fast were you going?” shouts a reporter above the din of the crowd.

“I’m not going to tell you; I don’t want my husband to know,” she says, laughing.

Meet Cindy McCain – philanthropist, self-described gear-head, and potential first lady.

The heiress and now chairman of the third largest Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship in the country, she is also the wife of presidential contender Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and mother of four of his seven children.

Almost without exception, those who know her well say she is poised and polite – maybe a bit aloof in public, hesitant to make a mistake.
But friends call her down-to-earth and fun, with a deep sense of compassion and a moral fiber strengthened by overcoming an addiction to painkillers and a serious illness that could have changed her life.

She is fully engaged on the campaign trail now but dislikes politics and the press. She gives interviews sparingly. She’s far more comfortable working with refugees in far-flung lands, she says, than hobnobbing with opinionmakers in Washington.

In 2000, after supporters of rival George W. Bush spread rumors in South Carolina that her adopted daughter from Bangladesh was in fact her husband’s illegitimate African-American love child, she’d had enough. Mrs. McCain vowed, “I’m never having anything to do ever again with politics,” according to a close friend. And she told her husband, “You’re on your own, John McCain.”

But friends say she “healed” from that just as she has from medical difficulties, tapping the same reservoir of grit and determination that helped her overcome addiction. Beneath that very polished veneer they see a strong, determined risk-taker.

“She is a lovely, complex, and very deep person with a rich character,” says Sharon Harper, a close friend from Phoenix. “In one regard she’s very refined and may seem a little shy: She’s very polite, respectful, and gracious, but that’s coupled with a great strength, character, persistence, and deep beliefs and compassion.”

Cindy McCain was raised in Phoenix when it was still a relatively small city with wide avenues lined by towering palm trees. Even though she has two half-sisters, she had little contact with them, and she thinks of herself as an only child. She has also called her parents “her best friends.”

Her father, James Hensley, had been a bombardier in World War II who was shot down over the English Channel and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After his discharge, he went back to Phoenix and got involved in the liquor business with a man widely reputed to have ties to the Mafia.

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