Having dealt with multiple sclerosis and breast cancer, Ann Romney also offers a powerful family story that helps her husband, the son of a governor and a graduate of both Harvard business and law schools, speak to the American dream.
"Sometimes it's like, 'Mom, what did you say?' But she says things he can't say about himself, really helps humanize him," said 41-year-old Tag Romney, the couple's eldest child. "She's a very good resource. She's a good weapon. ... And she's less concerned with trying to package things so we win and more about telling the truth that this is who we are."
Political observers and voters share the characterization. They describe her, and her effect on the candidate, as a tremendous asset.
Mitt Romney often reflects on how they first crossed paths at a Michigan elementary school but didn't start dating until high school. He introduces his wife as his "sweetheart" and she introduces him as a family man and business leader. After the pancake breakfast, he didn't mention his own family's success story, depending instead on hers as he spoke to voters.
Her grandfather, the son of a coal miner from Wales, couldn't afford to send all four children to college. The children were forced to pick just one who would receive an education, Mitt Romney said. They settled on Ann's father, who would earn his diploma and later open a steel company that would employ his siblings.
Ann planned to share her story in a book during the 2008 campaign, but Tag Romney says those plans were postponed.
Political assets aside, her mere presence seems to help relax her husband. They are not shy about public affection, and he regularly squeezes his wife's hand, even when the cameras are not rolling.
"He is confident, comfortable and very effective when she is by his side or with him on a trip — the value of which cannot be understated in dealing with the pressure of a national campaign," said Jamie Burnett, who led Romney's political operation in New Hampshire four years ago.
Ann Romney's growing role is not unprecedented in presidential politics.
Spouses often become political assets or liabilities.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's third wife, Callista, helped create headaches for her husband's current campaign when news of a six-figure charge account at Tiffany jewelry company surfaced.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's husband, Marcus, recently defended criticism that his family's counseling clinic offered to "cure" homosexuality.
On the other side, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's wife, Mary Kaye, is a regular attendant at political events, as is Perry's wife, Anita, who often serves as a campaign surrogate.
"Sometimes family members can really make a difference in presidential politics," said Barbara Perry, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. She's not related to the candidate.
History is full of examples:
—Michelle Obama, from working-class Chicago suburbs, offered the candidate Barack Obama a more traditional family story.
—Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson traveled throughout the South without Lyndon B. Johnson during the 1964 election to promote the Civil Rights Act.
—Robert Kennedy's mother, Rose, helped humanize her son, who was actually quite shy and didn't enjoy campaigning.
Ann Romney declined to be interviewed for this story. But expect to hear much more from her in the coming weeks.
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