Long before Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan joined the Republican ticket, Mitt Romney had an active and charismatic running mate in his wife, Ann Romney.
Throughout the Republican primaries, no candidate’s spouse was more visible on the stump, and perhaps no one was more unlikely to be taking on such a role. Ann Romney has overcome serious illness and a severe aversion to politics to campaign for her husband.
If you want to see how much Mitt and Ann Romney consider themselves a team, check out his official portrait at the Massachusetts Statehouse. He’s the first governor to request that an image of his wife be included in the painting — he’s posed beside a framed picture of her.
By all accounts, the Romneys consult each other on everything. So after a bruising campaign in 2008 that left Mrs. Romney openly disgusted by the process and vowing she would never do it again, it looked like that might be it for Mitt.
But as resolute as Ann Romney was then, she was equally firm, just two years later, that her husband simply had to run again.
Speaking in Orlando, Fla., just a few months after her husband officially declared himself a candidate, she explained to a crowd of supporters: “I have the same voices or feelings or intuition, women’s intuition, right now again — that we need to jump off the cliff again. There are not many people that can save this country and turn it around — it needs a turnaround.”
Margaret Wheelwright, who became close friends with Ann Romney at church in the early 1970s, says it was a “faith-oriented” decision.
“[Ann] told me … ‘I just felt when I was praying one night that, you know what, he could make a difference,’” Wheelwright says. “She encouraged him because of how she felt after she prayed. She felt like that the Lord said, ‘You know what … he’s capable, you stick behind him, because he can do it.”
A ‘Fire-And-Ice Relationship’
Today, Ann Romney has gone from a Massachusetts first lady most voters wouldn’t recognize to practically a co-candidate — often the warm-up act before her husband takes the stage, and just as often, headlining events on her own.
“I think of Ann Romney as the fire in the fire-and-ice relationship between her and Mitt,” says former Massachusetts state Treasurer Joe Malone, a Republican who has known Ann Romney since 1994, when her husband first ran for U.S. Senate.
“She has gone from the wife who was happy to be supportive of the husband and just keep him company in the car,” says Malone, “to an opinionated woman who’s highly valued — and then, on top of that, someone who’s a very effective communicator for the campaign.”
Dynamic, down-to-earth and poised on the stump, Mrs. Romney learned the hard way. She was most known in the 1994 race for her stumbles; for example, when she said she and her husband were so poor as students, they had to sell some of their stocks. Or that she’d never — in her entire marriage — had a fight with her husband.
Today, savvier and more experienced, she’s much more careful, says Donna Sytek, former New Hampshire House speaker and chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
“I remember standing with her at the polls … and I was saying something mildly critical, and she said, ‘Watch out for the microphones, they are very sensitive! They have booms, be aware!’” Sytek recalls.
Mrs. Romney also comes across as warmer and less wooden than her husband. She has emerged as a kind of “Mitt-igator,” making the case that “the real Mitt” is not who people think.
“There’s a wild and crazy man inside of there,” she laughed on CBS in May.
‘A Forever Job’
Politics is not new to the former Ann Davies. Her father was a mayor in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She was with Mitt Romney when his father, George Romney, was governor of Michigan and running for president, and when his mother, Lenore Romney, ran for U.S. Senate. In the 1970s, Ann Romney herself ran for Town Meeting in Belmont, Mass., and won.
But her real passion and focus has been raising her five sons.
“My career choice was to be a mother,” she explained on Fox News after she was criticized by a Democrat for not working “a day in her life.” Romney explained, as she often does on the stump, that both she and her husband believed her work at home to be most important.
“He was making money … and he would come home and say, ‘Ann, my job is temporary, but your job is a forever job that’s going to bring forever happiness.’”
By all accounts, Mrs. Romney was a hands-on mom. She barely hired the nannies or domestic help she certainly could have, according to Wheelwright, her friend from church.
“They painted their own house; they worked in their yard, sweating and dirty,” Wheelwright says. “And they just both felt so strongly that ‘We don’t have someone in there cleaning their bedrooms and doing the dishes for them, because that’s what they should do.’”
Romney did volunteer work in the community and for her church, such as teaching an early morning seminary for high school kids.
“She taught the Old Testament, and then the New Testament, and then the Book of Mormon,” says Wheelwright, whose own sons attended the classes. “Those kids — every morning at 6:15 — were there for 45 minutes and the kids loved her.”
Finding Her Faith
Ann Romney herself was brought up with little organized religion by her Welsh immigrant father and her mother, whose family goes back to the Mayflower. She started learning about Mormonism in high school, while dating Romney, and decided, as a teenager, to convert.
Gov. George Romney tutored her and baptized her, while Mitt was doing missionary work in France, and she married Mitt shortly after he returned.
“Her mom and dad [were] not happy about this at all,” says Romney biographer and distant cousin R.B. Scott.
Ann Romney may be traditional, but she’s always been willing to buck convention — and her parents, he says. One example was when her mother — a fervent believer in zero population growth — objected to the Romneys’ ever-growing family.
“Her mom began to complain about ‘You’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, the Mormon Kool-Aid, you’re having a big family … you’re destroying the Earth.’ Ann apparently said, ‘OK, Mom, I want to maintain a relationship with you but if this continues — we’re not going to have a relationship!’”
It is perhaps a testament to her sway that Ann Romney’s two brothers both converted to Mormonism shortly after her, and so did even her mother, shortly before her death.
“When she decides something, I don’t think anything stops her,” Wheelwright says.
A ‘Dark Hole’
And it’s also how Ann Romney approached the biggest challenge she’s faced, when she was suddenly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998.
“Those were scary, horrible, hard, hard years,” recalls Wheelwright. “There’s no doubt they were afraid.”
Romney talks about it openly now. She described to ABC what she called the “dark hole” she was in.
“I can’t stand to even be reminded of how sick I was,” she said. “It wasn’t just the feeling sick. It’s the unknown of — ‘Where is this taking me? And how long is this going to go on? And is it going to drag me down so much that I have nothing left in life at all?’”
Eventually, through sheer will, and some alternative therapies, Romney beat her MS into remission and built herself back up to the point where she became a champion equestrian.
Romney says dressage — a sport sometimes referred to as “horse ballet” — saved her life. Democrats point to the arcane pursuit, in which riders in top hats prance and pirouette on horseback, as proof that Romney is elitist and out of touch.
But it’s a contention Romney vigorously denies.
“Look, maybe I haven’t struggled as much financially as some people have,” she said recently on Fox News. “[But] I can tell you — and promise you — that I’ve had struggles in my life, and Mitt and I have compassion for people that are struggling.”
A ‘Ferocious’ Defender
Romney says her priorities as first lady would be helping to find a cure for multiple sclerosis — and breast cancer, which she also survived. And she says she would continue her work with at-risk children and against teen pregnancy.
Romney has said publically that she doesn’t agree with her husband on every issue.
But Wheelwright says she can’t imagine Romney trying to get mixed up in policy decisions.
“She would certainly be willing to share any of her feelings if Mitt asked her, but she’s a smart lady … I think she knows her place.”
That is, as a trusted adviser, on everything from strategy to selecting a vice president.
She is so much a part of the team, she speaks in terms of “we.” And she couldn’t be more passionate about her role promoting and protecting her husband, as she was recently when condemning the Obama campaign for a strategy she said was centered on personal attacks.
“We heard what their strategy was — it was ‘Kill Romney,’” she told CBS News in July, “and I was like, ‘Not when I’m next to him you better not!’”
“She is ferocious about defending Mitt,” says Malone, the former Massachusetts treasurer. “I think it’s very much like Nancy Reagan, where she would put her antenna up and watching the vibe, and I think Ann Romney [is] very in tune with what’s going on around Mitt.”
Perhaps her most important role is just being there. Mrs. Romney says her family calls her the “Mitt Stabilizer.” Her husband would be the first to agree, he’s better when she’s with him.
“If I’m away from Ann for longer than a week or so, I get off course,” he told CNN’s Piers Morgan. “She has to bring me back and moderate me down a bit.”
“If you watch him when he goes into a room, he is always looking around to see where Ann is, [asking] ‘Where’s Ann?’” says Scott, the Romney biographer. “There is this connection between the two that is intense, and she provides the anchor and the confidence that he needs.”
More than 45 years after they started dating, he still introduces her as “my sweetheart.” Given where she’s come from, she calls it nothing less than a miracle to be out on the stump, hoping her high school sweetheart will also be the next president.