No one ever would call Mitt Romney a rock star, even onstage with a Gibson SG Standard finished in vintage sunburst with a mahogany body, baked maple fingerboard and two humbucking pickups. Even on a roll, Mitt doesn't rock. But his wife, Ann, does. Suddenly, she's hot.
Her rock star persona is the buzz of the campaign, and the Romney strategists have the happy task now of figuring how to best use her iconic blond good looks, her savvy on the stump and her popularity with crowds between now and November.
"Indeed," reports Politico, the Capitol Hill political daily, "this 62-year-old grandmother's contribution to Mitt Romney's campaign could amount to the most relevant role a wife has ever played in a presidential effort -- softening the edges of a flawed and awkward candidate who struggles to connect with voters."
This week's results -- decisive triumphs in three more primaries, in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia -- suggest that Romney's "struggles" are about over. Calling him a "flawed" candidate is a bit excessive -- he has an enormous lead in delegates -- but even in winning, he often comes across as "awkward." Ann Romney, with scant experience as a public speaker, has emerged as a compelling and passionate surrogate for her husband.
He counts on her. "I wish Ann, my wife, were here," he told an audience in Wisconsin on the eve of that state's primary. "She's going across the country and talking with women. We have work to do, to make sure we take our message to the women of America."
The Romney campaign tries not to keep the two apart, despite the demands of campaigning, usually in several states at once. "We don't want a situation where they're apart for three weeks," says Tagg Romney, the eldest of the five Romney sons. "You can tell when she's off the trail for too long; my dad has got some sharper edges. He's a little less patient. She'll say, 'Oh, don't sweat it. You don't need to worry about that.' And (that distracts) him."
In fact, the Romney sons coined a name for their mom. They call her "the Mitt stabilizer," a name she cheerfully accepts. "I have been known (as that) at times by my sons," she told a Baltimore radio interviewer the other day. "Mitt can get very intense, and I can have the ability to kind of talk him off the rails sometimes."
Romney sometimes uses her as a foil to make fun of his reputation for stiffness. One of his favorite stump activities is to tell how he once asked her, "In your wildest dreams, did you ever think we would be running for president of the United States?" She replied, "Mitt, sorry, but you're not in my wildest dreams."
Presidential campaigns are grueling, and the hedge-hopping airplanes, long bus rides and bad food make an endless ordeal; this week marked the 34th primary or caucus so far, with 19 to go before the primary season finally ends June 26 in Utah. She keeps her good humor, even when things go awry, and her physical stamina is the envy of others in the campaign much younger than she is.
She sits in on strategy meetings, but whatever suggestions she has are offered in private to her husband. She's careful about public expectations of what a candidate's wife should be, a mate neither too traditional nor too hip. Bill Clinton made trouble for himself two decades ago when he briefly touted Hillary as a "co-candidate," boasting that voters could "buy one and get one free." But when the Romneys split up on the rope line at campaign events, the bigger part of the crowd often surges toward her, not him.
Ann Romney, like others in the campaign, is always conscious of her health, the fact that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998 -- now in remission -- and the fact that she had a bout of a noninvasive form of breast cancer four years ago, which has not recurred.
She first assumed a prominent role in the campaign in December, when Newt Gingrich led her husband in the public-opinion polls for a week or two. Her mere presence was a not-so-subtle reminder of the 42-year Romney marriage and Mitt's abiding devotion to her through two serious illnesses, in sharp contrast to Newt's colorful succession of wives. She expects to continue as Mitt's chief advocate with female voters, a troublesome demographic.
The era of a candidate's spouse's being the mere "wife of" is now mercifully relegated to the past. She once told an interviewer that the first ladies she most admires are Mamie Eisenhower, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, but her star power makes her an effective advocate, not merely a wifely admirer. She has an instinct for knowing when to speak and when to hold her tongue. "Sometimes when I hear criticism of my husband, I want to come out of my seat and clock somebody," she once said. "But you learn to take a deep breath." And save the passion for later.