The flare-up over women’s issues in the presidential race has put Ann Romney front and center.
The renewed focus on Mitt Romney’s wife has showcased one of his strongest assets just as many voters are tuning in to the race for the first time.
But it was a Democratic strategist’s remark about her on Wednesday evening that catapulted Ann Romney onto the television screens and newspaper front pages.
Appearing on CNN, Hilary Rosen said Mitt Romney shouldn’t use his wife’s experience to guide him on women’s economic issues, because she had “never worked a day in her life.”
The resulting firestorm put Democrats on the defensive just as they are trying to maximize their recent gains among female voters, and gave Republicans an opportunity to take the high ground on the valid contributions of stay-at-home parents.
But it also gave Ann Romney a moment to shine at a politically valuable time.
“Right as the primary was ending, you have this snafu by the Democrats that shines a light on her and her life,” said Sara Fagen, President George W. Bush’s former political director. “Their first introduction to ‘Romneyworld’ is Ann. That’s a terrific testament to Mitt.”
Romney’s campaign agreed that Ann offers voters a look at another side of Mitt, and said she is relishing the opportunity to share her family’s story on the campaign trail.
“She is able to show people what a caring and devoted father and husband he is, as well as attest to his strong leadership and his ability to turn this economy around to help get our nation back on the right track,” said Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg.
Romney’s aides have long recognized that the candidate’s wife is one of his strongest assets. Where Mitt appears stilted, mechanical and inaccessible, Ann comes across as warm, inviting and relatable.
And where Mitt gets into trouble talking about his wealth and lavish lifestyle, Ann can connect the dots for voters between her husband’s business prowess and his ability to create jobs and fix the economy.
“She can talk about his success in a way that he cannot,” said Fagen.
On the campaign trail, Ann shares anecdotes about her husband’s affinity for pranks and his rowdy interactions with his sons, helping to soften the image of a man that many voters still see as stiff. Observers at Romney’s rallies and town halls have noted how the former Massachusetts governor gazes wide-eyed at his wife when she speaks, visibly in awe of her effortless ability to connect with strangers.
In early April, the campaign also released a video of Ann titled “Family” to showcase Romney’s role as a family man and a doting husband.
“She's sunny, she's optimistic, she's forward-looking, she’s pleasant and seems affable,” said Kellyanne Conway, a GOP pollster. “She adds biography, depth, color and texture.”
Reacting to the uproar over Rosen’s comments on Thursday, Ann Romney recounted a story she tells frequently on the campaign trail about the differing roles the two played in raising their family.
“He was making money and doing the things, raising funds and investing, and helping other companies and he would come home and say, ‘Ann, your job is more important than mine,’ ” she said on Fox News. “He would say, 'My job is temporary, I know that these things come and go, but your job is a forever job that is going to bring forever happiness.' "
Born in Romney’s home state of Michigan in 1949, Ann Romney met her future husband in high school, and later converted to Mormonism with the guidance of his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney (R). She has battled multiple sclerosis since 1998 and underwent treatment for breast cancer about a decade later.
She might not have had a career in the workplace, Conway said, but she’s in good company.
“Nancy Pelosi was a stay-at-home mom,” said Conway. “All her kids were in high school before she ran for office.”
Democrats have been on the attack on women’s issues, hoping to make hay out of Republican opposition to a contraception coverage mandate and to a bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. Their efforts come as new polls show a major gender gap favoring President Obama and Democrats. Obama led Romney by 19 points among women in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday.
Ann Romney’s most obvious boost to her husband’s political fortunes could come with female voters, especially if Republicans can successfully depict Rosen’s remarks as an indictment of stay-at-home moms by Democrats in general.
“The theory is that professional women tend to be more moderate or swing voters; stay-at-home moms tend to be more conservative. I don’t know that’s true,” said Chris Perkins, a Republican pollster. “Women are independent by nature, and personality resonates better with women.”
But if Ann Romney’s presence at the forefront of her husband’s campaign gives voters a new, more personal way to relate to the presumptive GOP nominee, her reach could extend much farther.
It could also serve to undercut the gains that Obama will reap when his own very popular wife hits the campaign trail for his reelection, talking with voters about the difficulties of the economy and what Obama has done to expand opportunities for the middle class.
“Look, I know what it's like to struggle, and if maybe I haven't struggled as much financially as some people have, I can tell you and promise you that I’ve had struggles in my life,” Ann Romney said Thursday. “And I would love to have people understand that Mitt and I have compassion for people that are struggling, and that's why we're running.”