When Meghan McCain said on national TV recently that Senate GOP hopeful Christine O'Donnell "is seen as a nut job," the reaction from the right was swift and furious, with critics bashing everything from McCain's lack of experience to her judgment to, well, her anatomy.
So now that she's had time to reflect _ after all, she does call herself "a work in progress" _ would she like to tone it down a notch?
"I DO think she's a nut job," the very uninhibited, 26-year-old daughter of John McCain said in an interview this week. "I say what I mean and I mean what I say. I wish more for politics, and I wish more for women in politics."
And, of course, for her party. Since her father's 2008 loss, McCain, who made a name for herself with a campaign blog, McCainblogette, and now blogs for The Daily Beast, has been trying to establish herself as a voice for young, socially moderate, disaffected Republicans like herself.
"Rather than leading us into the exhilarating fresh air of liberty, a chorus of voices on the radical right is taking us to a place of intolerance and anger," McCain writes of the GOP in her new campaign memoir, "Dirty Sexy Politics."
She doesn't exactly shy away from naming names. She writes openly of her mixed feelings about Sarah Palin, and how she and her sudden, explosive star power sucked up all the oxygen in her father's campaign. Of conservative commentator Ann Coulter, she wrote on her blog last year: "I straight up don't understand this woman or her popularity. I find her offensive, radical, insulting, and confusing all at the same time."
And clearly McCain is quick with a comeback. When the irked O'Donnell campaign issued a scathing statement referring to how little political experience she had, McCain retorted: "I am not the one running for Senate." When conservative radio host Laura Ingraham mocked her manner of speaking last year and referred to her as "plus-sized," McCain said on "The View" that Ingraham could "kiss my fat" _ uh, derriere.
Whether she can be a viable voice on the political scene is, needless to say, a matter of dispute.
"She's a media darling because she attacks conservatives and other Republicans," says Diana Banister, a partner in a conservative public affairs firm who has worked with Palin and Coulter, and currently with O'Donnell. "If she's only attacking others, I'm not sure how far that gets her. She's good at getting attention _ that seems to be her platform."
Others are more charitable. "It's good to have someone like Meghan McCain out there," says Tim Miller, a consultant in Washington who served as communications director for John McCain in Iowa. "She's been pretty effective at popularizing the notion that it's OK to be a conservative and a Republican and support issues like gay rights."
Of course, Miller adds, "She's bucking the party and criticizing figures that are popular. So there's going to be pushback."
Some of that pushback has been downright nasty. After the O'Donnell remarks, there were comments from some conservative bloggers referring to her body, in terms cruder and more sexual than Ingraham's "plus-sized" putdown. Some even found a way to reference a photo McCain had impulsively tweeted a year ago, holding a book and wearing a bit-too-revealing tank top.
"What amazes me is that my body and the way I look are still being criticized," McCain says. "It's disheartening every time you get on TV and you hear that your butt looks fat or your boobs look bigger. It's not fun for me to hear that. It's 2010. Are we supposed to accept this as women?"
In fact, one of the things that infuriates McCain, a graduate of Columbia University with an art history degree, is how she is persistently perceived as a "party girl."
"For some reason, I get that rep," she says. "I think people in politics WANT me to be a dumb party girl. I go to Vegas every six months with my friends to play Black Jack. I go out, have a glass of wine and eat Mexican food. I dare you to find a picture of me clubbing, or wasted. You will not find it. I don't know where it comes from, other than the blonde hair."
It's that same hair that was deemed "slutty" by image consultants she was sent to during the 2008 campaign _ just one of many amusing anecdotes in her book. Unlike the adorable Obama daughters, used to great effect to humanize their father during the campaign and thereafter, Meghan McCain seems to have been seen as a black sheep by her father's top aides.
"There was a 'How do you solve a problem like Maria' melody swirling around me, but it wasn't a bunch of nuns singing," she writes of one tense period. "I needed to be fixed _ improved upon or polished up _ or sent to Siberia."
It wasn't her parents who were unhappy with her _ she portrays them as loving and supportive _ but campaign operatives, who weren't happy with her image OR her blog, which she funded herself.
Perhaps the worst insult: Arriving at the campaign's makeup and hair station at the GOP convention before a photo shoot, and being told she'd have to wait for the Palin kids _ including 7-year-old Piper, and Bristol's boyfriend Levi Johnston _ to be styled first. "They'll be getting more air time," she was told. No wonder a stressed-out McCain nearly overdosed on Xanax the night before the election _ an anecdote she says her father learned about only when he read the book.
McCain continues to travel to promote her book, which has sold modestly to date _ 12,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks around 75 percent of sales. Publisher Hyperion would not release sales figures.
"Young people, on college campuses, are really receptive to it," McCain says. "People in D.C. tend to not really get it. D.C. journalists don't really like me. That's OK. I'm trying to get an audience that feels disillusioned by the process." McCain has in fact been criticized for skipping the usual book readings and appearances in the capital and focusing on other parts of the country.
One thing people seem to regret not finding in the book, besides anything to justify the word "Sexy" in the title, is friction with her parents.
"People seem surprised that my Dad and I have a good relationship," McCain says. "They want to see a public fight. Well, it's not gonna happen."
And there's another thing that's not gonna happen: McCain insists she will never seek office.
"I'd help on campaigns, do fundraisers, endorsements," she says. "But I'd never run for office. There are a lot more people out there who are more capable. And I see what you have to do as a candidate. I'm way too honest. I am not scripted."
Oh, and one other thing she is absolutely, positively sure of: Despite her driving some fellow Republicans crazy, don't expect to see Meghan McCain switching parties anytime soon.
"Hell would freeze over before I became a Democrat," she says. "The Republican Party has issues, but the Democratic Party? It's a disaster."
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