SIMPSONVILLE, S.C. — She had always been active, playing tennis and touch football, roughhousing with her five boys, Ann Romney says. She handled all the household finances, did all the laundry, and when her sudden and deep fatigue was diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, “I thought, ‘My life is finished. My life is over.’ ”
The room of some 50 Republican activists has gone still. The women, and most of them are women, anxious about the future and their families, lean forward in their chairs.
“And it was Mitt who said, ‘You’re still here. We’re still together. We will get through this together,’ ” Mitt Romney’s wife says.
That was 13 years ago, and now Ann Romney is in remission. America, however, is not. America is in recession, or at least on the edge of it. The steadfastness and capability that Mitt Romney conveyed to his wife when she was foundering are the very qualities that should lead both GOP primary voters and the general electorate to put him in the White House, she suggests. That’s the point of the story.
The former Massachusetts governor is a technocrat, a man who looks so presidential on paper and often sounds so robotic in person, the frontrunner who’s a far better candidate the second time around but can’t consolidate his support. Romney may be a turnaround king, and you could picture him in the board room at the end of the long, polished table, but you can’t imagine him leaning toward voters and saying, “You’re still here, I’m still here, and we will get through this together.”
So his wife of 42 years says it for him, by telling deeply personal stories. Last week, she hit eight cities in five days. She did five events Thursday in South Carolina and had a sleepover with Gov. Nikki Haley, the state’s tea party standard-bearer, who has yet to endorse any Republican for president. On Tuesday, Ann Romney goes back to Iowa for three days.
So far, she is the only wife of a Republican candidate with a separate campaign schedule each week. Anita Perry, the wife of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is stepping up her pace, meeting with small groups and opening campaign offices last week in Iowa. On Friday, first lady Michelle Obama did three solo fundraising events for the Democratic National Committee.
The wife is expected to serve as verifier of character and interpreter of authenticity for her husband — and the incumbent and the Republican front-runners this time around are all husbands. She is expected to become an “effective surrogate,” in campaign-speak. She is the one with the eyewitness testimony.
“Those moments that I see late at night, after the girls have gone to bed, and he’s in his office poring over the letters and the briefings,” Michelle Obama told people at a Maine fundraiser Friday. “And I hear the passion in his voice and the determination. He says, ‘Michelle, this isn’t right.’We have to fix this.”
The wife is expected to fiercely defend the candidate against attacks, and after his own stumbles. Anita Perry tried her hand at expectation management after her husband’s poor debate performances. “He’s never had a debate class or a debate coach in his life,” she told a group in Iowa last week, according to the Des Moines Register. “He’s going to be better prepared next time.” Ann Romney says she turns into a “she-beast” when her husband is criticized.
The wife’s unwavering commitment and enthusiastic participation is nonnegotiable. (Also apparently nonnegotiable: Having a wife. The last president to leave office as a bachelor was James Buchanan, and his term ended in 1861.) The public and the media expect the wife to be the real running mate, even though she’s not allowed to share out loud any political ideas of her own if they differ from her husband’s.
If Cheri Daniels, the wife of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, hadn’t used her veto, the Republican contest would be completely different. And it may still change, depending on Mary Pat Christie. Her husband, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, used to tell those hustling him to run that “my wife would kill me.” Now, his campaign has let it be known that former first lady Barbara Bush called Mary Pat a few months ago to assuage her fears about life on the trail and in the White House.
Ann Romney makes clear where she stands on this subject. She is all in.
When her husband wavered on running again, after he failed to win the party’s nomination in 2008, she was the one who pushed him — “I said, ‘Go!’ ” she recalls, bending her knees and making a firm shoving motion with both hands.
“I’ve had a totally different mental change from the last round,” she says, moving about a small stage in an upstairs meeting room of City Hall, cordless mike in her hand. This time, “I’m going to enjoy this. A lot. It’s not like I didn’t enjoy it last time. It wasn’t allhorrible, really,” she says, and her audience chuckles. “But I was worried all the time — what’s gonna happen, what’s gonnahappen?
“I’m not worried anymore! Mitt’s going to win!” she says. She’s going to do everything she can do, and then, she adds bluntly, with a big grin: “If they don’t pick him, that’s their stupid mistake!”
Whether a spouse on the trail can really influence voters’ choices is unsettled political science, but so is much of political science. “The candidate is expected to talk about the issues, and it’s the wife who can talk about the man behind those ideas,” said Lisa M. Burns, a political science professor at Quinnipiac College in Connecticut and author of “First Ladies and the Fourth Estate.”
“She gives information that voters can’t get anywhere else,” and swing voters and primary voters who are undecided “do look at things like their wife, their family.”
Gut and feel often carry as much weight as stats and fact. Policy matters, and personality may matter more. The hired hands recite talking points, but the wife is thought to speak more spontaneously, from the heart.
“I’m a firm believer in seeing the candidates face to face, their wives, their families, their dogs!” said Donna Simpson, an administrator at an assisted living facility and the president-elect of a local Republican club, who came to see Ann Romney at a library in Spartanburg, S.C., on Thursday. “The wife is a little more outspoken, and casual. She can talk woman to woman, wife to wife. I feel like she is speaking for him, and she will speak to him, carry back to him what she hears.”
Ann Romney likes to talk to people, and she’s very comfortable standing up there without notes. She, too, is a better campaigner this time around.
Now 62, she was 16 when Mitt Romney asked her to come meet his family one summer weekend. Their vacation home was the governor’s mansion on Michigan’s Mackinaw Island, because his father, George, was the incumbent. The weekend included bike rides and ice cream cones and fishing and falling in love, and when the Romneys told this story again recently on Mackinaw Island, the crowd demanded a kiss — “but not an Al Gore kiss!” Ann said — and then they obliged.
She has composed her life alongside his, starting college at Brigham Young University but not finishing her degree until years later at Harvard Extension College. She converted to the Mormon faith, a decision she made on her own when he was away on mission. There have been bumps in the road; in addition to receiving a diagnosis of MS, she also faced early-stage breast cancer, undergoing a lumpectomy and radiation in late 2008.
She shares stories the way many women do, stopping the forward motion to add a sentence of background here, a paragraph of commentary there, to help her listeners understand why she feels as strongly as she does.
So a story about why the Romneys decided to “run for politics,” as she calls it, is really a 20-minute conversation that touches on how much she misses her grandchildren when she is on the road but cherishes the homecomings — her 16-year-old granddaughter presented her with homemade strawberry jam and the little ones made “welcome home” signs. And about her 11-year-old granddaughter listening to her grandmother complain about how she hates going through airport security — she can never find her license without her glasses, and she can’t find her glasses in the bottom of her purse, and her shoes are in one hand. By now the audience is chuckling along with the woman worth north of $250 million who has the same problems they do. Well, her granddaughter made her this little pouch to wear around her neck, “and Mitt said, ‘You can’t wear that thing,’ and I said, ‘Oh, you watch me!’ ”
She loves her five sons and complains about their fondness for bathroom humor — “they still think it’s hilarious and they’re grown men!” — and she marvels at how she is standing in front of this crowd now, in her fire-orange silk jacket, the granddaughter of a Welsh coal miner who went to work in the dark and came home in the dark and died of black lung disease, who told his children, “You study, or it’s the pick and shovel for you.”
To think that his granddaughter “could be the first lady of the United States,” she marvels, and folks applaud.
“She is very reachable. She could be living next door to me,” Barbara Weaver said. She was leaning toward Mitt Romney, because she’s worried about the country and “he’s very solid,” but his wife has sealed the deal.
Staff writer Philip Rucker contributed to this report.