John and Cindy McCain at the "Got Your 6" gala sponsored by the Lifetime cable channel in Tampa on Wednesday. (Courtesy of Lifetime)

TAMPA — Four years ago, he was the GOP’s man of the hour. On Wednesday, John McCain quietly celebrated his 76th birthday here with an early convention hall speech and a cameo appearance at a late-night party.

“If I’d known I was going to live this long,” he joked, “I’d have taken better care of myself.”

The story of the 2012 convention is the next generation (Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Kelly Ayotte) of Republican leaders. But if you thought McCain misses the spotlight, think again. The Arizona senator and wife Cindy seemed happy and relaxed on the sidelines as their own next generation took the stage at the after-party.

Meghan McCain on the red carpet. (Courtesy of Lifetime)

“You have no idea how happy I am to be in a room full of Mitt Romney supporters!” roared their daughter Meghan McCain, the brassy blog personality and cable commentator, at the Lifetime-sponsored bash at the Glazer Museum benefitting the “Got Your 6” campaign for veterans. “We all here for the same reason: Like-minded Republicans trying to get Romney elected and get Obama out of office!”

The senator has heard it all (or at least a version of it) before: This is his eighth Republican convention. In 1984, the freshman congressman was allowed exactly four minutes to speak to the near-empty convention hall, covered only by C-SPAN. “I was more nervous about that than any time since,” he told us, chuckling. McCain had speaking roles in ‘88 and ‘92, gave the nominating speech for Bob Dole in ‘96, and major roles in 2000 and 2004. (His ’08 wingwoman Sarah Palin not only was given no convention role, she even was kept off TV, when Fox News cancelled her planned Thursday night punditry appearance.)

Does McCain enjoy conventions?

“Yeeaah,” he said unconvincingly. “I do like them.” Well, chatting with delegates and donors, anyway. The non-stop photo ops? Not so much.

“The worst thing that ever happened to politicians is this camera,” he said, pulling out his cell phone.

McCain said he was only in town for the day: “It’s Mitt’s Romney’s show.” He assessed the race as “neck-and-neck” and said Romney needs to grab this opportunity to connect with voters. “This is probably a little bit more important than a lot of conventions because Mitt needs to bring those unfavorables down.”

Has he asked McCain for advice? “Oh, as a courtesy.” The senator said he told Romney to home in on jobs and the economy.

Of course, McCain added, “One thing you get as a candidate is advice. That is the one commodity that there’s an abundance of.”

As birthday celebrations go, this one was short on fireworks. “I got some cake earlier today,” he told us. “But all I feel on my birthday is how lucky I am. I’m the most fortunate person you’ll ever meet.”

See then-Rep. McCain’s convention debut in 1984, via C-SPAN

Full coverage of Republican National Convention

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