Exclusive: The McCain Women Speak Out

In the 2008 presidential race, candidates' family members are playing a more pronounced role in their campaigns than ever before. No where is this more evident than aboard Sen. John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus where wife Cindy McCain, mother Roberta McCain and daughter Meghan McCain are regular and influential fixtures.

"Nightline" co-anchor Cynthia McFadden sat down with the McCain women in an exclusive interview and found out just how much of a role they play in the Arizona senator's campaign.

The One Person He Trusts

Cindy McCain is at the heart of her husband's campaign now, but when the senator approached her initially about running for president again, she was understandably reluctant.


"I said hell no. I just didn't think I had wide enough shoulders for this again and I really had to think long and hard," she said.

After thinking about her son Jimmy — who is currently serving the military in Iraq — she changed her mind, fearful of what she thought might happen if her husband didn't run.

"I realized I had to do everything I could to help get him elected. He's the only man that understands not only what it means to send young women and men into combat but more importantly how to bring them home with honor and dignity and victory."

With this motivation, she thrust herself into the campaign, serving as the Senator's's main confidante. While Cindy McCain says she is not involved in the mechanics of the campaign, she believes she is the only one who tells him the truth.

"I am the one person he can trust," she said, "and I'm the one person who will tell him in the end exactly what I think and what's wrong -- you know, he needs to hear that sometimes."

Senator McCain heard this frank viewpoint in the summer when his campaign was stalling. It was spending much more money than it was raising and Cindy McCain made her concerns about the bottom line known.

"I look at our campaign and I look at our campaign as a business, I run a business, I have a bottom line, you have to have a bottom line, and what I saw is something that wasn't meeting the bottom line," she said.

In July, Senator McCain's campaign manager, Terry Nelson, and chief strategist, John Weaver, resigned from his campaign staff, along with several other senior aides. While Mrs. McCain acknowledges that she gave her husband advice, she insists she was not the force behind the staff shake-up.

"I was not part of the shake-up, I was simply part of giving him advice, and he could do with it what he wanted," she said. She added that "the decisions were his, but I did give him advice. I did, and I think he made the right decision too."

This decision led to what she believes is now a smaller, more tightly managed campaign that better reflects the senator's style.

"John's a very frugal person [and] really prefers a very lean mean machine and that's where we're at," she said. "And he thrives in that environment and having to work harder and smaller, he doesn't like big machines, he really enjoys where we're at right now."

While the senator may enjoy where they're at, it's certainly not ideal. Senator McCain is polling in fourth place in South Carolina as well as other early primary states, trailing behind Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney in fundraising as well.

Even so, Cindy McCain, who is from a wealthy family and has a considerable personal fortune, has declined to invest any of her own money in the campaign.

"I haven't put any money into the campaign, my husband has never believed that we should do that, he has always said, you know, I run on my own merits and if I can't convince the people that I'm the guy, we're not going to do it by, you know, we don't need to do it by [self-funding], we need to convince everybody else that we're the right family and he's the right guy for this."

Struggling With Addiction

Cindy McCain is a strong and steady force in her husband's campaign now, but she has faced some personal hurdles. She suffered a stroke in 2004 that left her temporarily paralyzed and battled an addiction to painkillers in the late 1980s and early 1990s after back surgery.

She made her addiction to painkillers public about 10 years ago and explains that the stress of living in the public eye was too much for her when she was younger.

"Our life had been in front of the camera and I never wanted to make a mistake or be a problem, or be, you know, it was just a lot of pressure for a young woman at that time and I didn't understand that it would be ok if you made a mistake," she said.

Cindy McCain hid her addiction from everyone, including her husband whom she did not want to worry. She said that when he found out, he was devastated that he didn't know earlier. The experience, though painful, taught her that it was OK to make mistakes.

"The older you get, you get a little more comfortable with yourself and you know yourself better and you realize what you can do -- a lot of times addiction results from fear. I don't have that kind of fear anymore, I don't, I'm just more comfortable in myself."

While she overcame her addiction, she was not able to protect her younger daughter from brutal political attacks on the campaign trail.

Personal Attack on the Campaign Trail

Leading up to the 2000 South Carolina Republican presidential primary, opponents spread false rumors about the origin of the McCains' then-7-year-old daughter Bridget.

The McCains adopted Bridget from Bangladesh in 1991, but opponents — the senator believes the Bush campaign, but it has denied it — used push-polling to make voters believe that he had fathered a black child out of wedlock.

Bridget, who is now 15, found out about the incident only a year ago when she Googled herself. Mrs. McCain McCain said Bridget was confused and hurt by the discovery.

"[She] was hurt by the fact that she thinks people don't like her because she's black," she said. "She asked me why the president of the United States doesn't like her and I said honey that's not what happened, you know this was about people that were mean spirited and wrong, they did wrong things you know, it's hard, it's been hard I'll say."

Despite these alleged brutal smear tactics, Cindy McCain said she was able to forgive, as time went by and she understood it was all about politics. Bridget is not campaigning with them this year and Cindy McCain is a little more prepared against attacks, recently saying that she keeps a "grudges list."

Cindy McCain isn't the only McCain woman who is a force on the campaign; her 95-year-old mother-in-law has also been active on the trail. She has been a key voice on her son's behalf, making known her beliefs that he is the only Republican who can beat Sen. Hillary Clinton.

"The United States is seeking and yearning for a leader. My son is the leader that we need, and make no mistake, he can be elected if he's nominated," Roberta McCain said at a campaign stop in South Carolina.

That is a view shared, not surprisingly, by the candidate himself who is adamant against suggestions otherwise that his campaign is going strong. When asked whether he would keep on going, he said, "Of course, there was never an issue of my quitting."

In the face of low poll numbers, personal battles and dirty politics, none of the McCain women seem to have any intention of giving up, just like the man they're there to support.