John McCain can’t resist a little trash talking—not with reporters or Democrats but with his own son. He’s in a Minneapolis hotel on Sept. 3, one day before his big speech at the Republican convention, and in a rare occurrence he’s surrounded by his entire immediate family—nine members in all, one more than the Brady Bunch—for a photo shoot.

With the camera clicking, his boys Jimmy and Jack make rabbit ears over their sister Bridget’s head; his daughter Meghan mock-punches Jimmy. McCain himself starts needling Jack, 22—a cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy, from which McCain graduated in 1958—for sleeping late that morning. “It’s not like the old Navy, I’ll tell you that,” McCain teases as everyone tries to keep a straight face. “In my day, we would have been up exercising, studying.” Then someone brings up a Naval Academy tradition for plebes—climbing up a 21-ft. granite obelisk coated in lard. “Jack was almost to the top,” says Cindy, McCain’s wife. “I was so excited.” “Yeah, almost,” says McCain. “That’s why we call him second-place Jack.” Everyone laughs, including Jack. “That’s just the way John is,” explains Cindy, 54, later. “The more he teases you, the more he loves you.”

It is a rare, unguarded moment for the man who would be President—and a revealing one for the big, bustling, blended clan who may become America’s first family. The McCains and their seven children are, like many families, close but complicated; they have faced unique pressures, struggled through tough times and, despite McCain’s high profile, tried to live as normally as possible. They are at once unusually splintered—for most of their 28-year marriage Cindy has lived in Phoenix with the children while John spent the workweek in Washington, D.C.—and, in their moments together, entirely typical, teasing and joking and battling over the remote. “He always turns to sports channels,” complains Cindy.

And while McCain, 72, usually lists family as one of his core values—right there with faith and country—it’s clear he’s not entirely comfortable discussing family matters with the press. Interviewed Sept. 8 aboard his campaign jet, McCain refused to be drawn out about his new running mate (see page 78 for more on Sarah Palin) and was even a bit testy about discussing his brood. “I think what happens in our family stays with our family,” he says. “I hope you understand that.”

Yet he did talk about the difficulties of raising children while serving in Washington, and he seemed to soften when asked about his sons and daughters. “I hope I’ve been a loving father,” he says. “My children are probably better qualified to make that assessment, but I’m certainly proud of them and what they’ve done in life—all seven of them.”

McCain adopted his two oldest sons—Doug, 48, an airline pilot, and Andy, 46, CFO of the family’s beer distribution firm—when he married their mother, Carol Shepp, in 1965. He and Carol then had a daughter, Sidney, now 42, a record executive. That marriage dissolved after McCain returned from five years in captivity in a Hanoi prison, though he refuses to blame the divorce on his ordeal, instead citing his own selfishness. “I haven’t been a perfect person,” he says now. (He and his ex are on good terms; she supports his candidacy.)

He met Cindy Lou Hensley, a special education teacher and daughter of a wealthy beer distributor, at a reception in 1979, and they married one year later. According to The New York Times, his older children were devastated when he remarried. They did not attend the wedding, although they’ve since grown close to their father’s new wife. Cindy and John had three children—daughter Meghan, 23, and sons Jimmy, 20, and Jack—and adopted another daughter, Bridget, 17, from Bangladesh.

When they wed, McCain was still a Navy captain but soon he decided to get into politics. “I thought I was going to have the life of a Navy wife, and won’t that be exciting?” says Cindy. “But life hands you different things.” Together, they made the decision that Cindy would raise their children in Arizona, her home state, while McCain would come home from Washington on weekends and holidays. “We wanted them to have a well-rounded life, and we gave them that out West,” says Cindy, who remembers an early experience that soured her on life inside the Beltway. “I went to a party with my husband, and people shook my hand while they were looking over my head trying to find John,” she says. “That was a little bit of a turnoff.”

When McCain did come home, “all he wanted was to be with his children,” says family friend Sharon Harper. “They always had these wonderful dinners, and the children, no matter who the guests were, were always mixed in at the table.” Meghan remembers those dinners in their weekend home in Sedona. “I thought the guests were just these men who hung out at our cabin,” she says. “Then I got older and realized it was Bob Woodward and Henry Kissinger.”

Yet the McCains were also “quite strict with their children,” says Harper. “The kids went to bed early, got up early, had their chores.” Cindy McCain enforced a set of house rules: The family always ate together, no TV until the weekend and—despite the family’s estimated $100 million net worth, thanks to Cindy’s family business—a modest allowance was paid only if their “chore chart” was filled out. “If the kids wanted a big-ticket item, they had to come to me and defend why they needed it,” says Cindy. At 14, Meghan remembers pleading for an $800 Louis Vuitton purse and getting turned down flat.

McCain admits that when it came to raising their children, “Cindy has carried a significant part of that burden.” She also had several miscarriages, and all but one of them happened when McCain was away. In the early ’90s, after back surgery, she became addicted to painkillers, some of which she swiped from a medical charity she founded. “The era I was raising my children was the era when you had to be Super Mom,” she explains. “I was putting too much pressure on myself.”

She hid her dependency from her husband, who only found out after her family confronted her. “I kept it from him because I didn’t want to let him down,” says Cindy, who recalls sitting on her sofa and feeling “almost child-like” when McCain rushed home from Washington once he found out. “He sat down next to me and said, ‘You should come to me first with whatever it is—I love you, I’m here for you, I will get through this with you,'” she says. “And he did.”

Then, in 2004, Cindy stopped taking her blood pressure medication and suffered a stroke. Once again, she opted to fight the battle alone, renting a house in California and spending four months there, away from her family, while she recovered. “It surprised me a little, but I know how frustrated she was,” says her friend Betsey Bayless. “She needed to focus and bring herself back 100 percent.” Perhaps most surprisingly, Cindy did not consult with her husband before bringing daughter Bridget back after a trip to a Bangladesh orphanage in 1991; she simply appeared with the infant and showed her to John, who agreed to adopt her. Overseas adoptions “were very odd, rare things then, but Cindy never said anything more than, ‘We have this baby now,'” says Bayless. “Just ‘This is my daughter, she’s from Bangladesh, I couldn’t leave without her.'”

Yet despite their often separate lives, the McCains, say friends, have a solid relationship. “The bond between them is just incredible, even though they’ve never been physically close in public,” says Bayless. Indeed, strategists have had to remind the senator to kiss his wife when they appear at events together. But in private, say those who know them, they are sweet and tender: Cindy McCain often combs her husband’s hair, since he can’t reach above his shoulders because of his war injuries.

The family has its own dynamics, same as any other. The four youngest children are friendly but not particularly close to the three older ones (citing military regulations, the McCains declined to permit Jack or Jimmy to speak for this story; nor would the campaign allow interviews with any of the others except Meghan). Jimmy, who’s “the peacemaker,” says Meghan, and Jack, “the clown,” have followed their father and grandfather into the military. But Meghan, who travels with McCain and is blogging about the campaign, insists she shares his maverick personality. All of the children, and especially Meghan, are very protective of Bridget, who recently had the last of several surgeries to repair birth defects.

Given that McCain is a half century older than his youngest children, it’s not surprising they have different views of the world. Unlike her conservative father, “I’m more socially liberal,” says Meghan, declining to elaborate. “My brothers are kind of liberal too. But my father is very respectful of my views.” When Jimmy was deployed to Iraq, the McCains held a luau to see him off; McCain cried as he hugged his son. “It was a mixture of pride and concern,” he says (Jimmy returned this February but is set to redeploy on Christmas Day). He is, he insists, similarly proud of son Jack. “His record at the Naval Academy is far superior to mine,” he says, laughing at his own reputation as an average student.

McCain, mindful that his youngest, Bridget, “is feisty from time to time and demands her rights,” he says, does his best to spend as much time with her as possible, despite the rigors of his campaign. Recently she loaded up his iPod with songs by Usher and other pop stars. But McCain admits that’s roughly like trying to teach a cat to bark. “Some of that music I’d never listen to in my wildest dreams,” he says. “She pretty much thinks of me as a lost cause.”

McCain may never groove out to Usher, but the gesture, he knows, means everything. So do the phone calls he makes a day after each of his children’s birthdays, “so he can sing us ‘Merry Un-Birthday,'” says Meghan. And so do the evenings spent watching It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the family’s favorite go-to movie during Christmas get-togethers.

Whatever happens on Election Day, the McCains will happily reassemble for their next big reunion this Thanksgiving. It’s a family tradition to “light luminarias, which is a paper bag with sand and a candle in it, and put them all around our cabin,” says Meghan. “I used to hate it, but now I love it.” Her father, too, appreciates every sweet, silly tradition they’ve ever come up with. “We’ve always blocked out time just for the family, and that has been the key,” says McCain. “I have always treasured that time.”