TAMPA--When the three major news networks announced last week that they would not air Ann Romney's Republican National Convention Monday night speech in Tampa, Republicans started scrambling. Romney's likeable wife of 43 years needed a primetime spot, they decided, and party leaders were reportedly ready to bump the popular Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to make that happen. Eventually, they moved New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez's appearance to another night so that Ann could steal the spotlight on Tuesday. Meanwhile, party officials denied they had ever considered dumping Rubio.
This last minute jockeying is a testament to just how vital the campaign considers Ann to her husband's election efforts, something that wasn't always the case over the course of Romney's political career. Back in 1994, during Romney's failed U.S. Senate bid (and first run for office), the new political spouse on the block was a gaffe-prone potential liability without the polish or PR skills to handle the press. But over the years, Ann has learned how to spin family tales into political catnip--wooing voters by offering a dimension to her husband that no one else has seen before—and becoming a smooth and competent politician in her own right.
The 63-year-old mother of five and grandmother to 18 has emerged as an important humanizing force for Romney on the campaign trail. While the presumptive Republican nominee can come across as stiff and awkward on the stump, Ann charms the crowd with personal stories, casting her husband in a softer light. At a rally in Michigan on Friday she choked up while expressing gratitude that so many supporters in her home state had shown up. "Mitt and I grew up here, we fell in love here, and this is a special place for us," she said.
[Slideshow: Ann Romney fashion]
Despite her ongoing struggle with multiple sclerosis, which she was diagnosed with in 1998, Ann has attended hundreds of campaign events and often comes across as having more energy on the stump than her husband. She was at her husband's side at virtually every rally during the long primary—working the rope line alongside her spouse and often delivering a mini stump speech of her own.
In one instance, she tells the story of being a stay-at-home mom in charge of five "very naughty" sons when her husband, then a consultant with Bain Capital, was traveling. "He would call home, and he'd hear a very exasperated wife at the end of the phone," Ann said during a rally in South Carolina in January. "And he'd remind me to hang in there. It would be okay, that actually my job was more important than his job. And the cool thing was he meant it."
"You couldn't pay me to do this again"
Ann now seems so skilled and smooth in interviews it's hard to believe that she is actually something of a comeback kid, politically speaking.
During her husband's unsuccessful bid for a Massachusetts Senate seat, the Boston Globe blasted her in a scorched-earth profile that portrayed her as a chatty, over-privileged woman living a life so perfect it bordered on creepy. The two lines from the interview that most haunted the campaign: Ann's insistence that she and her Ken-doll-looking husband had never once had a fight during their marriage; and her statement that the couple was "struggling" when Mitt was getting his graduate degrees at Harvard. The two were supporting themselves by selling off American Motors stock given to Mitt by his wealthy father—something that didn't exactly resonate with voters working two jobs to survive. ("Mitt was still in school and we had no income except the stock we were chipping away at. We were living on the edge, not entertaining. No, I did not work. Mitt thought it was important for me to stay home with the children, and I was delighted," she said at the time.)
In an article titled "Daughter of Privilege Knows Little of Real World," the Boston Herald ripped off the most unflattering of the Globe's quotes. The experience left Ann incredibly angry, she later admitted. When a reporter asked her after her husband's defeat whether she would ever help him launch another race, she retorted: "Never. You couldn't pay me to do this again."
Writer Ron Scott, a Mormon who wrote MITT ROMNEY: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics and who lived in the same stake—sort of the Mormon version of a diocese—as the Romneys, said he remembers "gasping" when he first read the Globe profile, instantly recognizing it as a disaster. But now, Scott thinks the incident just shows how fully Romney trusted his wife—for good or for bad. Despite her political inexperience, her husband was willing to let Ann do an hour-long one-on-one interview without media training or a PR team to hold her hand. And Ann was happy to take that risk, confident she could come out on top.
Perhaps that assurance was misplaced at the time, but it seems fitting now.
"She looks...like she's enjoying the campaign," Scott said. "I think if you were to contrast between now and '94, I don't think she really enjoyed that campaign or the 2008 one, but this time around I think she really looks like she's come alive."
The happy homemaker
Romney often introduces Ann as his "sweetheart" on the trail. The two began dating when she was 16 and he 18 in the ritzy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. Ann's father, an immigrant from Wales, had made his fortune and served as the town's mayor. Romney, the son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, "hotly pursued" her, she said later. After a year at Stanford and two years of a Mormon mission in France, Romney rushed home and proposed to Ann, who had converted to Mormonism under Gov. Romney's tutelage and was attending Brigham Young University in Utah.
Ann eventually finished her undergraduate degree in French in 1975, when she already had two children. She recalled in an interview with People magazine that she shocked a professor at Harvard's extension school--where she took some classes at night while Mitt attended grad school--for needing to nurse one of her children in the back of the lecture hall. "It's one of those things where the professor is like, 'Wait, wait, wait, this is liberal Harvard, but what am I going to do about that woman in the back with a baby that's nursing?' He just kept pretending like I wasn't there," she recalled. Though she saw the Beatles perform live in Detroit and was a child of the 60s, Ann was a bit of rebel in reverse for wanting to settle down and have children instead of pursuing a career. She's said she felt judged sometimes by peers, but never regretted her decision.
During the campaign in April, she used a Democratic strategist's attack on her for never "working a day in her life" to portray Democrats as judgmental and dismissive of mothers, a powerful counterattack to the Democratic argument that Republicans were waging a "war on women." The comments sent Democrats into a tailspin, with no less than President Barack Obama himself going on TV to say, "There's no tougher job than being a mom" within a day of the comments. Ann later called the attack "an early birthday gift" in comments that were captured by a hot mic, inadvertently showing off her tough-as-nails political instincts.
When speaking about Romney's bid, Ann frequently uses the "we" or the "Mitt and I" construction, emphasizing just how invested in the campaign she actually is. She's not just selling Mitt on the stump--she's selling them both as a team.
"Mitt and I are in an unusual position right now to make a difference to the future of this nation," she told a rally in West Charleston, S.C., in January.
Then, two weeks ago, she said to NBC: "I don't think he could do it without me. I don't believe he could."
Her willingness to take on the mantle of surrogate is somewhat surprising for a woman who has often aired her misgivings about opening up her private life and whom the Boston Globe described as largely "invisible" in Massachusetts as first lady when her husband was governor. Even now, when traveling on her own, Ann rarely tells people she meets on planes her true identity; she prefers to say vaguely that she works in public relations.
Technically, she's not lying. During the primaries, when Romney had a tense relationship with his traveling press corps, Ann would venture back on the candidate's plane to chat with reporters—offering up a friendlier face to the pack of wolves press than her hunted husband.
After a disastrous event in South Carolina when Romney was photographed with one of the smallest crowds he's ever attracted on the trail, Ann wandered off the bus and stood with reporters awaiting a gaggle with the candidate.
"What kind of jeans are you wearing?" she jokingly shouted, as her husband took the mic—a reference to a brief media obsession over whether the candidate was sporting "skinny" jeans on the campaign trail. Her husband grinned.
On the campaign plane, Ann always shares a row with her husband. He reads his iPad, while she's been spotted flipping through issues of US Weekly. He has said her presence keeps him calm. "If I'm away from Ann for longer than a week or so, I get off course," Romney told CNN's Piers Morgan. "She has to bring me back and moderate me down a bit."
But Ann's sunny disposition has faltered as negative attacks on her family's wealth and character intensified over the summer. While she's continued to be one of her husband's strongest assets on the stage, Ann has largely ceased her plane-side chats with reporters trailing her husband across the country.
Advisers who declined to be named discussing the candidate's wife said Ann was deeply wounded by the British tabloid attacks in July over her husband's comments suggesting he found London's Olympic preparations "disconcerting." (The Sun tabloid called him "Mitt the Twit" in retaliation, and the gaffe threatened to overshadow Romney's foreign tour.)
More recently, her hackles have been up over demands that her husband release more years of his tax returns. Ann was noticeably agitated in an interview with NBC's Natalie Morales two weeks ago when asked about the financial disclosures.
"Have you seen how we are attacked? Have you seen what's happened?" she said, leaning forward in her chair. "We have been very transparent to what's legally required of us. But the more we release, the more we get attacked, the more we get questioned, the more we get pushed. And so we have done what's legally required, and there's going to be no more tax releases given."
Besides fighting back in interviews, Ann has grown more aggressive on the stump as well. The announcement of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc) as Romney's running mate has breathed new life into the campaign, drawing larger crowds to Romney's events. Joining her husband and Ryan on stage at a rally in Mooresville, N.C., earlier this month, she marveled at the size of the crowd that had turned out, which was estimated to be at least 4,000 people.
"They know America is in trouble and these are the guys who are going to save it," she said. "It's a boost that gives us determination to say we're not going to take it anymore! We're going to take the White House back!"
--Holly Bailey contributed to this report from the campaign trail.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Romneys have 16 grandchildren. They have 18.