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Wives face life in the spotlight

  • Story Highlights
  • Life in the spotlight for the wives of the candidates may play a number of ways
  • Michelle Obama has been portrayed as angry, negative and unpatriotic
  • Heiress Cindy McCain is the Republican's second wife
  • McCain left his first wife, Carol Shepp, after returning from Vietnam
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By Jonathan Mann
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(CNN) -- Every move scrutinized, every word analyzed: life in the electoral spotlight where a clothes selection can be as much a defining moment as policies espoused.

Cindy McCain entered John McCain's life after his return from the Vietnam War.

Cindy McCain entered John McCain's life after his return from the Vietnam War.

This is life - not for the presumptive presidential nominees Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain - but for their respective wives.

Michelle Obama has already been in the firing line - accused of being angry, negative and "unpatriotic" with growing concerns she will be the target of ever more intensive attacks by conservatives as the election battle heats up.

For Sen. John McCain the attacks could come on two fronts - confined not just to his current spouse, the striking, elegant heiress Cindy Hensley McCain, but those rooted in his own marital history and the other Mrs. McCain before her - a woman of more modest means who is now virtually invisible.

The first Mrs. McCain was born Carol Shepp. She was also a beauty in her youth but after their marriage she suffered a terrible misfortune.

In 1969, while John McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Carol was badly disfigured in a car accident. She underwent such drastic surgery to rebuild her body that she ended up several inches shorter and a good deal heavier.

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For years, she struggled to recover and raise their three children but kept it secret from her POW husband to avoid adding to his ordeal.

He didn't find out until he was released and they were reunited, in 1973, but the marriage soon ran into trouble.

He was 42 and Cindy Hensley was 24 when she became the woman with whom he would make a new life. He separated from his wife within months.

In his memoirs, McCain writes that their break-up was caused by his "selfishness and immaturity"...."The blame was entirely mine."

Carol doesn't often talk to the media but she doesn't think her accident or injuries ended her marriage. She told one biographer "I attribute it more to John turning 40 and wanting to be 25 again than I do to anything else."

By all accounts, she got a generous divorce settlement and they remain on good terms.

It's an old story to the Washington press corps and one that has been largely overlooked in the course of the campaign.

Whether history encourages impartial observers to see McCain in a positive light; as a man who has publicly accepted his personal shortcomings; or more negatively, as a man who left a long suffering spouse for a young heiress, the bigger issue is whether his marital history could or should play a part in determining his credentials to become president.

And for that matter - the actions and words of a current spouse for either candidate.

All About Hillary ClintonDemocratic PartyBarack ObamaJohn McCainRepublican Party

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