At a campaign stop in Youngstown, Ohio, on March 5, Mitt Romney decided to use a different term of endearment for his wife and campaign partner Ann than the usual sweetheart girlfriend and steady he'd employed in the past.
I'll introduce to you, he told supporters, the heavyweight champion of my life.
In typical Mitt Romney fashion, the former Massachusetts governor belatedly realized the less-than-glowing implications that calling your wife a heavyweight might bring to mind, and he attempted yet another bumbling backtrack.
I didn't mean weight, he said, laughing. That didn't come out right. She's just a great fighter is what I mean. And I say that because anyone who can raise five boys and keep them on the straight and narrow, that's a champion.
But Mitt Romney need not have worried. Alhough his wife easily extended the weight gambit when she took her turn at the podium -- joking about clothes getting a little tight as the campaign wore on -- everyone in the audience knew what the Republican Party primary candidate meant when he called Ann Romney a heavyweight champion.
As Mitt Romney looks beyond the seemingly endless nomination process to plan a strategy for taking on Democratic President Barack Obama in the general election, his wife Ann is poised to become something none of the other candidates' wives even come close to: a challenger for the first lady.
Mitt Romney: The Problem With 'Perfect On Paper'
It's not difficult to pinpoint Mitt Romney's biggest weaknesses -- just as it was simple enough, back when the GOP presidential-nomination race was getting under way, to identify his strengths.
He has always been a strong candidate on paper.
In a time of economic hardship, he is the consummate businessman. When even those who voted for Obama in 2008 begin to question his experience, Romney has managed to cast his one term as governor of the Bay State -- and his father's own political legacy -- as a lifetime in politics.
And when Romney is on, he's on.
At the second Florida primary-election debate, after a halting and uncertain performance earlier in the week, Romney managed both to outdo Newt Gingrich in making random fact-spouting sound like persuasive discourse (one of the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker's most formidable talents), and to launch attack after attack at his main rival without ever losing his cool or the appearance of holding the moral high ground.
But -- as often happens with a candidate expected to win the nomination from the beginning, and one whom the party establishment has backed from the start -- Romney has found himself beset by candidates with greater grassroots support than his own for months. One after another, they each have taken a bite out of his credibility and the assurance that he is guaranteed to win with every attack they send his way.
And, for all the insults thrown at him -- from the idea that he's not a true conservative to the notion that he lacks the personal morality and values boasted by other candidates -- every single jab is rooted in and feeds upon the same idea: Mitt Romney. Just. Doesn't. Get it.
On its own, Romney's wealth shouldn't have been as big an issue as it has become. It certainly wasn't a problem for George W. Bush, or even for John F. Kennedy (although JFK'S Catholicism in the 1960s, like Romney's Mormonism today, did manage to raise a few eyebrows on Capitol Hill and elsewhere).
However, Romney, at more and more frequent intervals, has demonstrated an almost complete inability to deflect a single question about his finances. At times, he comes off less like a self-made businessman than as a relic of the robber-baron age, one who could not be more disconnected from the working-class voters he's courting.
While pandering attempts to reach out to the electorate, like his cheesy grits Southern strategy, might seem inconsequential at first, they feed into the idea that this is a man who will not only say whatever is needed to get a vote, but also will find a way to say it badly.
As a result, the fact that he appears to be such a stellar candidate on paper has begun to make Romney a distrusted figure, one whose assurances that he is the only candidate with a chance of beating Obama seem less and less important.
When political suavity and conservative credentials were the main concerns on the table, Romney's many slipups played right into Gingrich's hands. And as the very practical appeal of Romney continues to fade, Rick Santorum has emerged as the faith and family candidate whose idealistic brushstrokes as the putative moral and uncompromising candidate hurt Romney even more.
Romney's Secret Weapon
Despite all the candidates who have attempted to oust him from his position as front-runner or who have tried to be considered a viable candidate to take on Obama in the general election, Mitt Romney remains, thanks to a healthy delegate lead, at the head of the pack. And the GOP establishment, perhaps even more alarmed by the chance of a candidate like Santorum winning the nomination than is Romney, appears unprepared to settle for anyone else.
This lead and support is due in considerable measure to Romney's masterful campaign staff (Etch A Sketch comments nonwithstanding), who continue to paint the candidate, with his help, not only as the most electable candidate but as the man for all political seasons, with enough wherewithal and managerial skills to appeal to those less swayed by socially conservative credentials and more rooted in economic concerns.
This strategy appears to be buoying the candidate enough to secure him the nomination at the Republican National Convention in August. However, it is his wife Ann who, in many ways, has been quietly but effectively saving face and balancing out her husband's performances until his resume and her charisma combine to make them a formidable political team.
As anyone who's seen the pair together can attest, Ann is the one who delivers everything Mitt lacks -- and she makes her husband look all the better for it.
Where Mitt frequently looks uncomfortable onstage at rallies, with a delivery that can seem almost pained, Ann moves seamlessly from one point to another in her speeches, delivering her script as though all her carefully chosen words were coming off the top of her head.
Where Mitt appears aloof or disconnected from his audience, Ann delivers lines and tells jokes with no apologies and no boundaries between herself and the crowd, especially when they concern her relationship with her husband and anything that will connect voters with her family's life on the campaign trail.
And where Mitt sometimes seems like he just doesn't get it, Ann just does.
The Family Plan
In this hotly contested primary season, each of the Republican candidates' wives has largely been on the back burner, rarely seen or heard. It's not unusual for spouses, including Ann, to be mostly ignored at this point, when the candidates are expected to stand alone and when the political equivalents of steel-cage matches among rivals become the most important part of the race.
But, in the general election, voters don't just look at a candidate's politics. They look at his family, and especially at his wife, to get a sense of the political team -- and, like it or not, voters will always view candidates and their spouses as a package deal -- that they will be electing to office.
When Barack Obama was fighting Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008, voters knew what to expect from the Clinton side of things. They had already seen the candidate and her husband Bill Clinton as dual leaders of the United States. This time, the roles would simply be reversed.
In Michelle Obama, however, many saw something far more intriguing, and more heartening: a force of balance.
While Obama's policies, despite his message of hope and change, could veer toward the moderate, his wife was the one more openly to the left, the one more outspoken, the one pushing the most for change. And while Obama's lack of experience was one of the qualities most harped-on by his rival in the 2008 general election, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Michelle's eloquence and her presence on the campaign trail (prefiguring the role she continues to play in shaping the administration's priorities and message) helped counter Obama's almost-excessive charisma with a backbone of steel.
Most crucially, she provided an alternative to those voters crushed when Clinton lost the chance to make history as the first female president, especially with GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as a yardstick for comparison.
I voted for Barack, political cartoonists' characters joked, because I think Michelle would be a great president someday.
Ann Romney is a different woman, with a different agenda and different obstacles to work around. But in a race where polls indicate Mitt Romney continues to poll strongest among practical voters who respect his management skills and financial background, Ann does something crucial: She humanizes him.
Such was the impression I received when I first saw the Romneys speak during the New Hampshire primary season. I had already noted her presence on the campaign trail, muted as it had been, which proved a strong contrast to the other potential first ladies in the race. I also knew how active she had been in her husband's gubernatorial campaign -- and in his first attempt at the presidency in 2008.
What I was unprepared for was how relaxed Mitt Romney became around her, and how his wife, the person, as Romney put it, that you really came to hear from, was able to take stock phrases her husband had said countless times and make them seem both sincere and as though that sicnerity was coming from him.
It's unfortunate that the secret's going to get out about how gorgeous the lakes region is! Ann Romney told the crowd, before giving a variation on the teasing refrain she's sung since the race began: I've heard his speech already, and I might as well just give it.
At a later speech around the time of Super Tuesday (March 6), Ann Romney described how during her fight with breast cancer, and throughout her battles with multiple sclerosis, there was only one constant in her life: Mitt Romney was always there.
You can count on him, she told Super Tuesday voters. He won't abandon you.
Without Ann, Mitt can appear all wealth and no warmth, a man who has a loving wife and a big family yet one who still can't wrest the title of family values candidate away from the illogically successful Santorum.
With Ann, however, when she is given the chance to shine, Mitt becomes a candidate who can deliver lines about the economy and taking charge of big government while his spouse surrounds him with an aura of conservative values.
Their relationship gives the audience a love story in real time, as one adviser once said, and it shows the candidate's demonstrated commitment to his family and his duties as a husband and father above everything else.
'They're Approachable People'
This is not to say that Ann Romney doesn't commit gaffes of her own, including -- and most famously -- the sound bite in which the millionaire insisted that she doesn't consider herself wealthy.
And her subtle but considerable speaking talents are not quite enough to completely compensate for the fact that, especially in contrast to Michelle Obama, her blonde hair, pearls, and ever-fixed smile can make her appear a bit plastic in the photographs taken by the news media.
With Ann Romney's comparatively few appearances during the campaign so far, she is likely to have been dismissed by many voters who have not paid close attention to her yet as just another political wife, there to stand and look prettily supportive.
In comparison with the other Republican candidates' wives, and in the effect that she can have on voters' perceptions of Mitt Romney, there is no contest in the GOP primary at all.
They're approachable people, one New Hampshire voter, a woman named Carol, told me after hearing Ann speak. She was struck by the candidate's wife, as were many others that night, and she believed that the crowded Romney White House would show a lot of values.
Tellingly, however, Carol had only arrived at her support for Mitt Romney after researching every candidate in the race. And while Ann Romney appealed as the head of a first family on her own, it was her contrast to the other candidates' wives that affected her the most.
There's another candidate's wife, Carol said, referring to Callista Gingrich. I was just amazed. I could not picture her in the White House.
Furthest from the Romneys that you could possibly be.
Stacking Up Against The Other Wives
If one of Barack Obama's biggest strengths in the 2008 race was the presence and influence of Michelle Obama, then one of the future first lady's greatest advantages in the general election was being compared to Cindy McCain and the pampered and brittle impression she gave in her always-brief appearances on the campaign trail.
In some ways, Callista Gingrich appears to have inherited many of the qualities that made Cindy McCain so unpopular in 2008, from the immovable blonde hair that gives her something of the appearance of a campaign Barbie to how stiff and removed she seems from the campaign in public.
But Callista Gingrich also has the disadavantage of being Newt Gingrich's third wife. Although the fact the pair began seeing each other while Gingrich was still married has done comparatively little to hurt his own political ambitions, Callista, in the tradition of U.S. political life, has been villified for the affair ever since.
Meanwhile, Rick Santorum's wife Karen -- though praised as my hero by Santorum and frequently mentioned in speeches about his family -- is known to voters largely through a short-lived scandal in January when it came out that an ex-boyfriend of hers was an abortion doctor.
Far more Americans are familiar with Santorum's daughter Bella and her struggle with Trisomy 18 than about anything to do with his spouse, beyond the fact that she helped the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania make the seven children he brings up as an indicator of his family values commitments.
Ron Paul's wife Carol, though beloved by his supporters, has yet to make a single public statement on the campaign trail. When asked what would make his wife a great first lady, the U.S. representative from Texas merely told viewers at a Florida debate that they'd been married for 54 years before touting their joint project, The Ron Paul Cookbook.
There is room for only one libertarian barnstormer in the Paul campaign, and the candidate's wife appears to be almost as removed from the politics and persona-shaping of the race as Gloria Cain was in the fall.
Michelle Obama, Ann Romney: Two Women, Two Agendas
In a matchup of the various GOP candidates' wives, Ann Romney comes off looking even stronger than she would have alone.
But if Romney gets the Republican nomination, it won't be Callista Gingrich, Karen Santorum, or Carol Paul that Ann Romney, as part of Mitt Romney's election campaign, will be facing. It will be Michelle Obama -- the very woman whose success as a first lady appears to be what Ann's campaign strategy is sometimes modeled after.
But Ann Romney, it is very clear, is a different woman from Michelle Obama.
If Michelle's agenda was to make her husband appear more decisive, and to make herself an alternative to Hillary Clinton for those longing for a strong woman in the White House, then Ann's agenda is to make her husband appear more connected to voters, and to make her own relationship with him a depiction of their home life to rival the Santorum family values crusade.
And while Michelle Obama has proven herself a skilled operator and a powerful presence on the campaign trail, Ann Romney's specialty lies in appearing, at least, to act behind the scenes, embodying the conservative ideal of a woman whose strength lies in running her home, rather than in running for office.
She's no Michelle Obama, liberals can say, and with good reason. But conservatives and right-leaning independents, as ample evidence shows, don't want Michelle Obama. If anyone, Ann Romney's style brings to mind former first lady Laura Bush.
When George W. Bush's approval ratings continued to nosedive in his second term, his administration made sure to put Laura Bush front and center, poking fun at her husband's foibles to make them forgiveable and dropping lines about being a desperate housewife both to appeal to wives at home and to assert that she felt that home was the place where she was meant to be.
We have had it, Ann Romney told a crowd after Super Tuesday. Washington, here we come. She sounded, in that moment, more like a candidate herself.
We are going to take back America, and we're going to let this guy do it.
And then, she pointed at her husband.
I think [political] wives can be an exceptional asset and a potential liability, Susan Whitson, who was a press secretary to former first lady Laura Bush, told NewsDaily.
Like Michelle Obama, Ann Romney is most assuredly the bring-it-back-to-the-people side of the affair. But if both women were roughly comparable, or interchangable, their significance to both their husbands' election campaigns would be greatly diminished.
Instead, just as Barack Obama will work to contrast himself as the candidate of hope, change, and progress against Mitt Romney's arguments for stability, security, and strident pro-American policies abroad, Michelle Obama's strong, opinionated, and infectiously gregarious style will be put at odds with Ann Romney's quiet humor, and the role she plays when recounting stories like the time Mitt told her that your job [raising their children] is more important than my job.
When it comes to making her role as a wife and mother seem both empowering and a credit to her husband's politics, humanizing his by-the-numbers approach and aiming a warm and unthreatening smile at the crowd, there is no wife in this race quite like Ann Romney.
Whether the Romney campaign takes full advantage of that fact -- and how the contrast between the two potential first families will shape the general election if it does -- remains to be seen.