If supporters of Sen. John McCain like him because of his image as a political maverick, a closer look at his wife shows a woman equally as independent-minded as the Republican presidential nominee.

Just as Cindy McCain has eschewed the political limelight, supporting her husband on the campaign trail but keeping in the background herself, her own resume casts her as a women in full – and not the perfectly coifed, glamorous Stepford spouse her detractors suggest.

Race-car driver, check. Airplane pilot, absolutely. Chief executive of her own megamillion-dollar company and mother of four. Been there, done that. Mrs. McCain, 54, also has traveled around the world to support her own charities and had the determination to run a half-marathon just eight months after suffering a 2004 stroke.

“We call him a maverick, but gosh, she’s really a maverick herself,” says Michelle D. Bernard, chief executive officer of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, who thinks Americans do not yet know enough about Mrs. McCain’s impressive background.

“The more I read about her, the more I think she’s a pretty incredible woman. She’s got an amazing story to tell.”

Public life began for Cindy Lou Hensley after she married war hero and former POW McCain in 1980, a year after meeting him in Hawaii. Both lied about their ages; he’s 18 years her senior.

Two years later, she helped him campaign for Congress, setting him on a path that kept him in Washington during the next 26 years. While she gave Beltway life a go, Mrs. McCain, an Arizona native and self-described “independent Western woman,” never truly embraced the city’s culture and returned home quickly, raising her growing family largely on her own while her husband commuted to Phoenix on weekends.

She already was capable – as well as vivacious and rich – when she met him. The daughter of a powerful and wealthy beer distributorship family, she was a blond and fit cheerleader at the University of Southern California before earning her master’s degree and teaching special education classes at Arizona’s Agua Fria High School. It was, friends say, the beginning of a long history of a woman of privilege devoting herself to those who struggled and were less fortunate.

Personal struggles

After suffering several miscarriages, she had three children – daughter Meghan and sons John and James – and later adopted a fourth daughter, Bridget, bringing her home from a trip to Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Bangladesh. Of all the hats she has worn in her life, motherhood, it seems, is her most important, observers say.

“She’s has been happy to call herself a stay-at-home mom, and it’s not an affectation, notwithstanding her wealth. Her kids do seem to be where her greatest interest lies,” observed Wilfred M. McClay, a professor of humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who said he admired Mrs. McCain not only for her beauty, but also for her inner strength.

“She doesn’t like to speak in public much or to relish politics as politics. She isn’t a phony,” he said.

“One doesn’t detect in her any kind of political agenda, but rather a fierce loyalty to, and enduring admiration for, her husband and her family. I think it’s a quality that many Americans are likely to admire, and it will likely be a very large political asset to her husband.”

By now, the McCains’ marriage has been dissected and filleted, exposing struggles as well as triumphs that have kept them together – and seemingly tight – after 28 years.

“Among the wives of generals and admirals and other high-rankers, the wives are tough, tough characters, not only to keep up with their husbands but to manage everything in the household,” Mr. McClay added. “I would guess that this was a harder road for Cindy McCain than she could have anticipated, but she has stuck to it and, I think, not only prevailed but thrived.”

It was not always easy. Lingering back pain led Mrs. McCain to seek relief in prescription pain relievers that she admitted taking from her own medical charity, which provided care for children in war-torn and devastated areas abroad. A former employee alerted federal authorities, and Mrs. McCain, after a family intervention, admitted she was addicted but avoided prosecution.

Mr. McCain later said he did not realize she had become dependent on the medications, but he stood by her even as the headlines blared the family’s personal trauma. Likewise, Mrs. McCain stood by her husband during the “Keating Five” scandal of the mid-1980s as he sought to clear his name in the wake of the savings-and-loan industry scandals.

As Mrs. McCain survived back surgery, high blood pressure and a resulting stroke that forced her to learn to walk and talk all over again, Mr. McCain survived recurrent bouts with skin cancer. Together they also weathered his failed 2000 presidential run, making them a devoted team not only at home, but also on the campaign trail. Whatever was going on outside, they circled the wagons and kept their family together. Both sons are serving in the military.

Political prowess

It would be wrong, those who know her say, to underestimate Mrs. McCain’s influence in her husband’s life, even if she stands quietly by his side on the stump, making short introductions and quick exits as she happily cedes the fanfare and attention to the veteran lawmaker.

“She’s been an enormous asset to the senator politically,” said Paul Alexander, a senior reporter at More magazine and author of “Man of the People: The Life of John McCain,” who has interviewed Mrs. McCain many times.

“She’s not involved in the daily decisions that are made in terms of his career, but he often relies on her for advice on big-picture issues. She is very astute in her understanding of the American political system.”

A Rasmussen Report poll in June found that 49 percent of voters have a favorable impression of Mrs. McCain, compared to 29 percent with an unfavorable view. However, other surveys have found that many voters acknowledge they don’t know much about her.

Mr. Alexander said that is largely because she is uncomfortable in the media crush and does not enjoy the negativity that comes from partisan political sparring. Mrs. McCain, he said, has forged her own interests and a fast-paced life away from her husband’s public career – with equal success.

“She’s a very successful businesswoman, having inherited the family business that her father started and grew. She’s taken it over and actually expanded it.”

He also lauded her hands-on commitment to charities she has founded, including the American Voluntary Medical Team (AVMT) and the Hensley Family Foundation, as well as her much-honored work with Operation Smile, which provides cleft-palate surgery to children in developing nations. She also has traveled on behalf of the HALO Trust, which removes land mines from combat zones around the world.

“The devotion that she has shown to charity causes over the years is impressive,” Mr. Alexander said. “This is a woman of substance with a high level of self-examination. I think that if there is some way the campaign could highlight this more, it would be an enormous asset to them. When she is in the limelight, she really shines.”

More than Mrs. McCain

While she has focused her life on raising her family and likely would be a traditional-style first lady, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Mrs. McCain would have her own active life away from the pressures of the Oval Office if, indeed, her husband is elected president.

“If you spend time with her, it’s hard to figure out how she does everything, but she does. And she does them well,” Mr. Alexander said.

“I think when the public understands this about her, they’ll stop looking at her as the dutiful politician’s wife and realize she’s a complicated woman, not just Tammy Wynette standing by her man baking cookies. She can do that, but it’s just a small part of her really full and complicated life.”

He added, “To me, she’s a great role model for younger women. If you want to see how you can manage the feminist’s dilemma, look at her. How do you manage a career and have a family at the same time? She’s done it. She’s been a wife and a mother, a CEO and done an amazing amount of charity work. To me, she’s a real role model for the new woman.”