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CAMPAIGN 2000

Campaign Is a Labor of Love for the Wives of Republican Front-Runners

Politics: As husbands duke it out, Laura Bush and Cindy McCain have become forces to be reckoned with.

March 06, 2000|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — They are two nice ladies from the Southwest, daughters of wealth and privilege, mothers who are panther-like in their protection of hearth and home.

Both left teaching careers to concentrate full time on raising children. Both are grateful that the circumstances of their marriages to successful men permitted them to do so.

Both are avid volunteers. Both are handsome women, with pastel eyes that might have wandered out of a Monet painting. Both favor expensive wardrobes, especially these days if the garments fare well in a suitcase.

So striking are the superficial similarities between Laura Welch Bush and Cindy Hensley McCain that in another life, the two might have been friends. But the growing antagonism between their husbands, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain of Arizona--the two front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination--makes that unlikely.

Instead, as the GOP presidential campaign spirals toward conclusion, the wives have surfaced as stealth campaign weapons. While the husbands duke it out, the two women with the country-club manners are there to smooth out the edges. Barely visible in the early days of the race, the wives are suddenly everywhere. For both, it is a part that is being written as they go along.

Spouses Play Pivotal Roles

Pros at their craft, Bush and McCain have perfected The Look, the wide-eyed gaze of adoration required of any First Lady. They know their job now is to market the next president as a man who is not only a whiz at foreign policy, but also an ideal husband.

Sitting in a hotel room last week in Virginia Beach, Va., Cindy McCain, 45, said, "People are very interested in seeing the two of us together. They want to see how we interact. There's also a great deal of interest in me, seeing how I act and look, all those things."

A few days later, in what was ambitiously described as the presidential suite of a chain hotel here, 52-year-old Laura Bush offered much the same assessment.

"People are interested in the personal lives of the candidates. People are interested in the family life of the people who are running for office," she said. "I think that's appropriate."

But as alike as Bush and McCain might appear at first glance, in person they are as different as sugar and spice. Bush, a sorority girl at Southern Methodist University and the daughter of an affluent home builder, was a teacher and children's librarian who married into a prominent family and seamlessly moved into the traditional domain of marriage, children and charity work. McCain used family money to set up a charitable foundation and has traveled the world as a volunteer relief worker. For 20 years she has juggled a commuting marriage to a man 18 years her senior, and in the course of her husband's presidential campaign, she has been disarmingly candid about her struggle in the early 1990s with drug addiction.

As veterans of the political treadmill, both women are accustomed to scrutiny, though neither is particularly comfortable with it. McCain, for example, accepts that it is public record that her husband was married to someone else when they met in Hawaii in 1979. She was 25, and armed with a new master's degree in special education from USC. He was a dashing Navy officer who survived five years in a North Vietnamese prison.

When her husband became a congressman three years after their marriage, McCain opted to remain in Phoenix with a family that has grown to include four children: Meghan, 15; Jack, 13; Jimmy, 11; and 8-year-old Bridget, the child Cindy McCain brought home from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh.

"Meet your new daughter," she told her husband when he greeted them at the airport.

Far from some cookie-cutter nuclear family--the kind politicians like to pretend exists all over America--Bridget, the little girl with a cleft palate, joined what may be the ultimate modern household. Along with a menagerie of exotic animals, the McCain family includes the senator's three children by his first marriage: Doug, 40, Andy, 37 and Sidney, 33. John and Cindy McCain remain on good terms with his ex-wife, Carol McCain.

Laura Welch and George Bush were in the same middle school class for a year in Midland, Texas, but neither admits to remembering the other. Both were 31 when friends fixed them up at, of course, a barbecue. The businessman and teacher married three months later, with a prenuptial pledge neither has lived up to.

"He promised I would never have to make a campaign speech," Laura Bush said last week, addressing a roomful of Republicans. She promised she would jog with him. She never broke in a pair of Nikes, and insists her favorite sport is reading.

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