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.
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:
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—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.