MIAMI - She speaks in such soft, gentle tones that people in the crowd sometimes find it hard to hear her, even with a microphone. And when her husband takes the stage, she melds into the background, her hands clasped, her blue eyes focused on him, on the sea of faces and, most intensely, on the message.
So when Cindy McCain pounces to the attack and rips into Democrat Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, it often catches the audience off guard, as happened on Friday at a rally of 6,000 supporters in Miami.
“I have always been proud of my country,” she said with righteous anger, drawing roars of approval for the unmistakable jab at Michelle Obama’s, who earlier this year said that “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is making a comeback.”
Cindy McCain is no longer the sheepish woman in the tight blonde bun and neatly tailored suits who merely introduces her husband on stage and then stands meekly behind him nodding her head. With her husband slumping in the polls, she is becoming a bigger presence on and off the stage and is letting her hair down literally and figuratively. She’s going on the attack. And the crowds love it.
Friday’s zinger was the latest in a string of rips at both of the Obamas. In speeches across the country, Cindy McCain has used her son’s service in Iraq to accuse Barack Obama of endangering his life and, by extension, the country’s security.
“The day that Sen. Obama cast a vote not to fund my son when he was serving sent a cold chill through my body,” McCain, 54, told a rally in Pennsylvania last week, standing beside her husband of 28 years and his vice presidential running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. “I would suggest Senator Obama change shoes with me for just one day. I suggest he take a day and watch our men and women deploying.”
She lashed out at a campaign stop in Nashville, Tenn., two weeks ago, accusing Obama of waging “the dirtiest campaign in American history.”
McCain aides say it was Cindy who began adding the biting lines on her own, without any prompting. Strategists encouraged her to keep doing it.
“She wants people to know the truth,” said Melissa Shuffield, an aide and spokeswoman to Cindy McCain. So from time to time, she scraps what’s written on her 4x6 index cards and earns thunderous roars from the crowd for her verbal assaults.
“GOOO Cindy!” women scream, waving signs with her name in red glitter.
“Won’t she be a great first lady?” McCain often coos when he takes the stage and the crowd settles down. "People often ask me why Cindy isn't running."
Behind the scenes, those who know Cindy McCain say she is reserved, preferring to shy away from the limelight — unlike Michelle Obama, who is more outspoken on issues and occasionally has caused a stir with her candid comments.
While Michelle Obama spends most of her time crisscrossing the country on her own — holding rallies and roundtables and making appearances on shows like The Daily Show and Larry King — Cindy McCain prefers being on stage with her husband and riding beside him on McCain’s plane, Straight Talk Air, according to aides and close friends.
This weekend, in a rare move, she broke away from the presidential entourage to campaign on her own, attending a rally for her husband in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and then embarking on a bus tour through the rest of the state that continued Monday.
An aide said her solo run was part of a McCain family effort “to spread out and just maximize our time in the final couple of weeks.”
“She campaigns in the way that she feels is the most effective,” Shuffield said, noting that Cindy is taking a more high-profile role in the closing days of the campaign because “She realizes the importance of this election.”
At the same time, Shuffield said, “It’s a great support system to have her on the road with the senator. It provides him with a sense of security.”
Shuffield and others said that Cindy plays an unheralded but important behind-the-scenes role. Last year, in the campaign’s darkest hours, when it appeared that all was lost and TV Pundits were using lines like “Dead Man Walking,” Shuffield and other aides said Cindy helped spark the comeback.
“She was the one who talked to the senator and said, ‘Listen, we need to turn this thing around,’” Shuffield said. “She sat him down and said, ‘Businesswise, let’s talk about how we’re using our money. Let’s talk about the decisions we’re making.’”
“Cindy has very good instincts,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close friend of the McCains. “She’s probably John’s best sounding board, and she always tells him exactly what she thinks.”
More and more, Cindy McCain— a multi-millionaire, and the heiress and chairman of a beer distribution company -- finds herself in the middle of controversy, often because of her wealth. On Friday, her 2007 tax returns showed she earned more than $4 million, feeding into the Obama campaign’s attacks that she and her husband are out of touch with the common man. McCain also became the butt of jokes in recent months when he could not recall how many homes he and his wife owned.
But the moxie Cindy McCain exhibited in recent weeks caught the attention of McCain supporters and unearthed a new fan base.
At a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Saturday, Heather Blackmon, a systems coordinator at a local insurance company, said she was impressed.
“She’s a tough woman,” Blackmon said. “Even though she comes from a financially fortunate background, it’s obvious that she understands what we’re going through. She’s really trying.”