By Alicia M. Cohn - 10/02/12 09:00 AM EDT
With the election just five weeks away, Mitt Romney’s campaign is deploying the person who has become one of the strongest weapons in its arsenal: Ann Romney.
“She’s his sword and shield,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, describing the prospective first lady.
She is also taking on the GOP presidential nominee’s critics with an aggressiveness that historians say is unusual in an aspiring first lady.
“Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring,” she said in an Iowa radio interview in September, confronting the conservative critics her husband had largely downplayed.
“Was I a little strong?” Ann laughingly asked Jay Leno of the interview the following week.
The aggressive edge seems blunted on Ann Romney, a woman the campaign has defined as a mother of five and grandmother to 18.
“The way it seems to translate to most Americans is, it’s more a wife defending her husband, rather than one politician defending another,” said Myra Gutin, a professor of communication at Rider University and a first-lady scholar.
Gutin said it’s rare to see a first lady or a prospective one be “combative,” but pointed out that Ann Romney’s aggressiveness has not translated to taking “potshots” at Obama, which might not be as well-received.
“She speaks to her husband’s strengths, and to a great extent that’s what most first ladies have done,” Gutin said.
Ann Romney’s ability to put her foot down — and still be liked — is an asset to a campaign that has struggled with perception, said Gutin.
Ann Romney’s somewhat abrasive language — Romney frequently uses the phrase “you people” when chiding critics or media — along with apparent relish of criticism — as in calling the comment in April by Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen that Ann “never worked a day in her life” an “early birthday present” — have not harmed her popularity with her husband’s base. In fact, both seem to further an image of Ann as the “stern mom” to Romney’s somewhat aloof dad.
Her propensity for biting rhetoric even earned satire from “Saturday Night Live,” which characterized her as strict and forthright but ultimately relatable in her parody debut on the sketch comedy show Sept. 22.
“When you go after my man, I get angry, Seth,” “SNL’s” Kate McKinnon, as Ann, said to “Weekend Update” host Seth Meyers. “Fellas, if you don’t nut up, ya got to shut up, OK?”
It didn’t work that way for Michelle Obama last presidential election cycle, when she struggled to overcome the “angry black woman” stereotype after making some aggressive comments on the campaign trail for her husband.
In 2008, Obama was described as cynical in her stump speeches. She described the country as “just downright mean” and “guided by fear,” and made the infamous comment that “for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.”
Michelle Obama was very “vehement” in discussing the divided country, an attitude that got her “criticized for being negative, for being critical of the country,” said Liza Mundy, author of 2008’s Michelle: A Biography.
“She also got criticized for being too critical of her husband, which some people thought was funny,” Mundy noted. “She got this kind of ‘Take my husband — please’ schtick that she would do, talking about how he wouldn’t put his clothes in the laundry hamper, how he wouldn’t close the bread when he would make a sandwich.”
In contrast, Ann Romney is supportive of her husband’s sense of humor, respect for women — even his hair. She reserves her criticism for her husband’s critics.
For those watching closely, Ann Romney has always shown steel beneath the supportive-wife-and-mother role. She takes credit for urging her husband to run again for president this cycle and has described the rigors of the campaign trail as “blah, blah, blah,” despite admitting that its intensity could trigger a relapse of her multiple sclerosis.
Ann Romney, who was diagnosed with MS in 1998, is “the first [candidate’s wife] to acknowledge living with a chronic disease,” noted Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the historian for the National First Ladies Library.
Ann Romney has spoken about the seriousness of her disease, referring to a “very dark place” the disease has driven her in the past, yet she has also joked that sometimes “really tough interviews” make it flare up. The disease helps explain both her relatively low media profile up until now and her tenacity.
Ann Romney has stumbled in some attempts to counter questions about Latino voters and tax returns, but she has proven adept at sweeping aside difficult questions about the kind of controversies — such as the “47 percent” claim and doubts about his Mormon faith — that tend to cling to the GOP nominee.
Mitt Romney told donors in May that they would see much more of Ann in September and October. At this point in the race, the more of the spotlight she can draw, the better, according to strategists.
“Her job’s to minimize the idea that Mitt Romney is not a normal guy,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said. “As long as it’s not taken as over the top, it’s a good thing.”