John McCain, sporting hip Maui Jim shades, slides into the mirrored booth at the rear of his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus. His preternaturally spry—and wry—95-year-old mother, Roberta, scoots in beside him. "I want to correct you when you start telling all those big lies," she teases. Daughter Meghan, 23, keeps her dad from sneaking any junk food: "He's 71 years old. He can have salad." And wife Cindy, 53 and hobbling on Chanel heels and crutches (for a torn knee ligament resulting from a grocery-shopping mishap), rounds out the senator's innermost circle.
Together, the three generations are on an exhausting, exhilarating family road trip, trumpeting the Vietnam war hero and U.S. senator from Arizona as he vies for the GOP presidential nomination. Meghan, chronicling their adventures at McCainBlogette.com, likens it to "being on tour with the Partridge Family—but way less vanilla." Along the campaign trail in New York and South Carolina this fall, the McCains let PEOPLE listen in.
MEGHAN: During the 2000 race, I was shy.
CINDY: You were a freshman in high school!
MEGHAN: And nobody wanted to take the candidate's daughter to the freshman mixer, I might add. This time, I want to show people what campaigning is really like.
ROBERTA (PATTING THE LEATHER SEAT): This is wonderful! Can you imagine me comfortable on a bus? I was in Europe for the whole 2000 campaign. I care a lot now. I think civilization depends on this election.
MCCAIN: Mother, would you mind mentioning your exploit on the Interstate in Flagstaff, Ariz.?
ROBERTA: It's so dumb! I was driving across the continent [in 2003] and had 300 miles to Los Angeles. I thought, well, I can make it tonight. So I put the gas on. I got a ticket for driving 112 miles per hour, signed my name and went on my way.
MEGHAN: I love her.
ROBERTA: Honey, I shoot my mouth off like a neophyte!
MEGHAN: Toward the end of the day, it's fun to just kind of zone out, eat dinner and talk about silly things, like how big my suitcase is.
CINDY: She brings a lot of shoes.
MEGHAN: Two boots, four heels. I'm like, if Victoria Beckham can never wear flats, I can do it too.
CINDY: Jack [21, in the U.S. Naval Academy] is the male clotheshorse of the family. He'll call John to talk about his ties. Bridget [16, in high school in Phoenix] asks John about education. And Jimmy [19, a Marine stationed in Iraq] obviously doesn't get much campaign information. He can't e-mail, so I get no e-mail from him. I search online for news, but I'm not sure where he is. He calls on the satellite phone and I ask questions, but he says, "Mom, you know I can't tell you anything." He's supposed to be coming home—not in time for Christmas but soon. I'll believe it when I get official word.
MEGHAN: I didn't start campaigning until Jimmy left because we did everything—bowling, the beach, quality time. Now I keep cool DVDs and music around for Dad. And I do his TV makeup. I have his exact Casper-the-Ghost paleness, so I know what looks good. I am my father's personality cloned in a woman's form. Mom balances us out. I'll be doing 50 things and Mom's like, "Focus. Stop drinking Red Bull."
CINDY: Towards the end, we'll all be trading flu viruses!
ROBERTA: Johnny should have been dead 10 times already. Not just when he was a POW in Vietnam. He had so many near-misses [as a naval aviator]. He was saved for some reason.