Ann Romney gets prime-time chance to help husband

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 27, 2012 

— Eighteen years ago, she was accused of hurting her husband’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts.

Four years ago, after Mitt Romney’s failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination, she begged him not to run again.

But today, Ann Romney is considered one of her husband’s biggest politics assets, helping soften the sometimes rigid demeanor he portrays as he runs for president.

Tuesday, she will deliver one of the most important speeches of the Republican National Convention, a potentially pivotal moment meant to help voters see her husband as she does and perhaps overcome one of the main challenges of his candidacy. Her remarks are considered so important to her husband’s prospects that the campaign shuffled the calendar to make sure her address would be televised on the broadcast networks.

The homemaker – a 63-year-old grandmother of 19 known as “Mamie,” who beat breast cancer but is still afflicted with the debilitating disease of multiple sclerosis – has managed to connect with voters in a way her husband of more than four decades has not. She’s been a constant on the campaign trail for months, her presence relaxing him while she’s also appearing in ads, political events and in interviews. She’s even a much sought after fundraising draw.

“I’m sold already,” said Tony Jackson, 49, a convention alternate delegate from Florida. “She’ll make a great first lady.”

Republican former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said she will play a critical role in defining her husband because Americans don’t know much about him, and what they have been told is not always flattering or true – he’s wealthy, he doesn’t care about everyday people, he shipped jobs overseas.

“I think it’s important for the spouse of any candidate because nobody knows them better. Nobody knows little things about Mitt Romney,” Barbour said. “The purpose of this convention is for the American people to see who Mitt Romney really is and what he’s really done.”

Romney, speaking to reporters Monday in New Hampshire, spoke briefly of his wife’s role on Tuesday. “I like my speech. I really like Ann’s speech,” he said. “She’s going to do terrific.”

Ann Romney declined to comment for this story. Her spokeswoman said Monday that her speech was still being finalized but that she planned to talk about the couple’s relationship and his role as husband and father. “Mrs. Romney is excited to have the opportunity to share her heart with millions of Americans,” Sarah Haley said.

“The country does vote for the candidate it likes,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducts the McClatchy-Marist poll. “The likability numbers have gotten better for him, but he still needs to improve. He just doesn’t connect that way.”

A fellow native of Michigan, Ann Lois Davies started dating Romney in high school when she was 16. Young Mitt, the son of Michigan Gov. George W. Romney, caught her eye at a party.

The two got engaged at the senior prom and her 1967 yearbook took a guess at what was to come, printing the words “first lady” next to her photo. They were married two years later at a ceremony attended by the presidents of Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. and Rep. Gerald R. Ford. She made the decision to convert to Mormonism, her future husband’s religion.

Ann Romney earned a degree in French, then decided to stay home and raise their five sons. She never sought the spotlight, though she made comments during her husband's 1994 campaign against Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy that came off as damaging to her husband. After Mitt Romney took office as Massachusetts governor, she served as his unpaid liaison to the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

“I couldn’t operate without Ann,” Romney told an interviewer after he was elected governor. “We’re a partnership. We’ve always been a partnership.”

Ann Romney was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, after feeling numbness in her right leg in 1998. She was treated with acupuncture and reflexology, among other Eastern and Western therapies. She also found relief in horseback riding.

In 2008, she received another diagnosis for a noninvasive type of breast cancer. She underwent a lumpectomy and is reported to be cancer-free.

“The thing that you can’t ever know about life is what tomorrow will bring. And so you just step forward and just go on,’’ she said in a July interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “And so, for us right now, I really believe that he’s the right person at the right time.”

She has embraced her role as a homemaker. Earlier this year when Democratic commentator Hilary Rosen suggested she should not comment on economic matters because she "never worked a day in her life," she responded on Twitter: "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work."

Karen Skrill, 68, a retired sheep farmer and alternate Republican convention delegate from Vermont, said Monday that criticisms about Romney’s desire to stay home with her kids are inappropriate. “They are really stretching for something to complain about,’’ said Skrill, who initially supported Rep. Ron Paul’s bid for the nomination. “I am impressed with the fact that she raised five boys. . . . That’s tremendous.”

Romney has said she doesn’t advise her husband on policy, but her influence shows through. She was the first to reveal that women were on the short list of possible vice presidential picks.

Brent Oleson, 41, a lawyer and a delegate from Iowa who supported Paul, said he hoped Ann Romney will be able to show that there’s nothing wrong with her husband’s wealth. “Her talking about that could humanize him,’’ Oleson said.

Barbara Finger, 56, an unemployed fast food worker and delegate from Wisconsin who initially supported former Sen. Rick Santorum, said Mitt and Ann Romney compliment each other well. “She can calm him down,’’ she said.

Email: akumar@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: anitakumar01

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