MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mitt Romney is not used to wearing an apron.
But the Republican presidential candidate was not alone in cooking attire one recent morning as hundreds of potential supporters lined up for free pancakes.
Ann Romney, his wife of 42 years, stood with him, spatula in hand, wearing the same white apron and the comfortable smile of a woman who spent countless mornings flipping flapjacks for five hungry sons.
Her presence on that day, like so many others during the long campaign, is an acknowledged blessing for a 2012 White House contender who struggles to shake a robotic image. Friends and foes alike say she makes him seem more genuine.
"Believe it or not, I served pancakes nearly every morning before the kids went to school," she told supporters that morning. "I miss having my boys at home. But I do love seeing how wonderful they are now as husbands and fathers. ... I am grateful because they had such an extraordinary example."
Ann Romney is the unassuming, not-so-secret weapon in Mitt Romney's political arsenal. At a GOP gathering in Michigan on Saturday, she spoke briefly, prompting the crowd to tap their glasses and call for a toast.
The Romneys kissed, and then Ann Romney joked, "''We're not going to do an Al Gore moment," referring to a long and public kiss that Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore shared with his then-wife, Tipper, at the party's convention in 2000.
Already she's a more active participant than she was during his 2008 presidential campaign. For example, as the Romneys headed into a meeting with Michigan lawmakers, Ann Romney took note of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's uneven debate performance a few days earlier.
"It's going to happen this time," she told Republican National Committeeman Saul Anuzis. "Perry in the debate? Shocking," she said.
The Romney campaign says there will be an enhanced role for her beginning the next month, with additional public appearances, media interviews and a willingness to discuss health problems and her family's rags-to-riches story.
The 62-year-old grandmother of 16 lends an instant folksy charm to her husband. He sometimes fights to convey authenticity in the diners and backyards where presidential contests are fought in this early voting state.
He's worked to shed the image of a stiff Wall Street executive from the upper crust of America, stepping up appearances at NASCAR events, ditching his tie, shopping at Walmart, wearing skinny jeans, eating at Subway and flying on the discount carrier, Southwest Airlines.
But those efforts haven't stopped the criticism.
At a time of economic troubles, Romney's wealth and upbringing are vulnerabilities that his chief rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is using against him. Perry, who grew up in a family of modest means in tiny Paint Creek, Texas, is chiding Romney for suggesting that he's a member of the middle class.
Others haven't looked kindly on Romney's efforts to portray himself as a regular guy.
"It's sort of contrived," says Brendan Steinhauser, a leading organizer for an ally of the tea party, FreedomWorks. "I've seen the whole flying Southwest thing. It's just not believable. Eating at Subway? Come on."
Enter Ann Romney.
Seemingly with no filter, she jokes about bathroom messes, cooking for a huge family and personal struggles with her husband's public life.
She reminds voters, in a most genuine way, that Mitt Romney is a father, a hand-holding husband, a high school sweetheart. He is noticeably more comfortable in her presence.
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