By Deborah Charles
COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (Reuters) - Ann Romney on Wednesday urged Iowans to vote for her husband Mitt to be the Republican U.S. presidential nominee, painting an emotional picture of her high school sweetheart who she says has strong values and can be counted on in a crisis.
Ann Romney, dispatched to Iowa with less than three weeks to go before the first Republican nominating contest on January 3, addressed about 50 people packed into the living room of a house in this city bordering Nebraska.
After admitting she had vowed in front of a video camera to never again go through a presidential race after Romney's failed 2008 effort against John McCain, Ann Romney said she had a change of heart and this time encouraged him to run.
"I feel the country is heading in the wrong direction," said Ann Romney. "I am here to convince you that Mitt is the only one who can turn around this country.
Standing alongside a towering, elaborately decorated Christmas tree and in front of a nativity scene displayed on the fireplace, Ann Romney was clearly trying to offer up the side of her husband that most people do not get to know.
She told of how he had supported her when she found out she had multiple sclerosis, and how he helped get her out of what she called a "deep dark hole" after her diagnosis.
"Not only do I have the absolute conviction that he would be a fantastic president. But I also know that he would have the character and the integrity."
"He has strong family values and that's what matters to him - that's what motivates the man," she said, talking about their five children and 16 grandchildren.
Though she did not directly mention front-runner Newt Gingrich, her comments clearly struck a chord with those who were uncomfortable with the thrice-married former Speaker of the House of Representatives. Gingrich has jumped past Romney in opinion polls for the race to become the Republican nominee to challenge President Barack Obama's bid for re-election in 2012.
"I want to know how the man treats his wife and family," said a woman who asked to be identified only as Susan. "It tells a lot about what he is like and how he would lead."
Others at the event said the differences were stark between Romney, who has been married for 42 years, and Gingrich, who has admitted he cheated on his first two wives. He is now married to Callista Bisek, a former House staff member with whom he had an affair. He has since converted to Roman Catholicism and asked for God's forgiveness.
Earlier this week, appealing for the support of Iowa's influential evangelical Christians, Gingrich promised to uphold the institution of marriage in a letter to Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Family Leader, a powerful evangelical group.
Unlike her husband, who has been criticized for being too stiff, with rarely a hair out of place, Ann Romney had many in the crowd wiping tears from their eyes as she told of his reaction when she was severely debilitated by fatigue from the multiple sclerosis.
"I said to him 'I am useless to everybody.' He said 'do you think I care that you make dinner? That isn't part of the equation any more. I don't care that you don't make dinner any more - we'll eat toast and cereal.'"
"He gave me permission really to just accept where I was and to let me move past so I could fight this disease," said Ann Romney, who has recovered since her 1998 diagnosis through a combination of horseback riding, drugs and alternative therapy.
"My husband has been the kind of guy you can count on. And that's the personal side of him that people don't know about."
(Reporting by Deborah Charles; editing by Anthony Boadle)