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A toughened Ann Romney must show Mitt’s soft side

By Robin Abcarian and Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times –

TAMPA, Fla. — In 2008, after her husband withdrew from the grueling race for the GOP presidential nomination, Ann Romney made a personal campaign promise: “I am never going to do this again.”

“You know what, Ann?” replied Mitt, father of her five sons. “You said that after every pregnancy.”

Telling that favorite family story to a jovial hometown crowd in Michigan last February, Ann delivered the punch line: “I guess I didn’t really mean it.”

When she takes the stage Tuesday at the Republican National Convention, Ann Romney’s task will be to show the warmer side of a man who is often described as plastic and remote. The nastiness of the campaign will temporarily recede as the woman who has been married to Mitt Romney for 43 years, who knew him in elementary school and fell in love with him as a teenager, will tell the country about his softer side.

She might talk about how, when she was frazzled from staying home with five boys, he would assure her that his work as a businessman was fleeting but hers as a mother was forever. Or how he was at her side when the terrible weakness she felt at age 49 — so bad she could not summon the energy to open an envelope — turned out to be multiple sclerosis. And how, when the fatigue robbed her of the ability to cook, he held her and said he didn’t care; they could eat cold cereal for the rest of their lives.

“I wish everyone could see him how I see him … how compassionate he’s been with me,” Ann Romney told Chris Wallace on Sunday in a Fox News interview that took place in their vacation home on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee.

As she softens her husband’s sharp edges, it’s clear that Ann Romney has toughened up.

For if there is anything that tests the mettle of a political spouse, it is the brutality of the presidential campaign trail. Just ask Michelle Obama — pilloried for claiming in 2008 to be proud of her country for the first time. Or Hillary Rodham Clinton — who dared to say in 1992 that she chose to work rather than stay home and bake cookies.

Ann Romney, 63, has been accused of animal cruelty, of leading a pampered, privileged life that renders her unable to understand the struggles of ordinary Americans. She has been criticized for wearing an expensive blouse, for driving two Cadillacs, for taking a tax loss on her Olympic dressage horse, for transporting an Irish setter in a crate on top of the family car.

Romney campaign officials refused a request for an interview with Ann Romney.

But Susan Duprey, a prominent New Hampshire Republican who works with Ann as senior advisor and “body woman,” says Romney has become philosophical about criticism.

“When you have been through this once before, you have a much better understanding of what you are walking into,” said Duprey, who makes sure that Romney carves out walking time and gets her preferred non-fatty proteins and vegetables for meals. “It’s frustrating, and she might want to throw something at the TV, but she does understand this is part of the gantlet that you have to go through in order to be president.”

Josh Romney has observed the change in his mother, too.

“I think she’s more comfortable talking to the media, less concerned about how she’s portrayed,” their middle son said during a phone interview. “And just more comfortable speaking for my dad. Because of that, she’s gotten a lot more attention this time around.”

That attention has included moving stories about her health crises — how riding horses helped her regain her zest for life after her MS diagnosis and the recent disclosure that when she was in her early 40s, she suffered the miscarriage of her sixth child about 4 1/2 months into the pregnancy.

When she is onstage, Ann Romney connects with crowds in a way that eludes her husband. She readily admits she has no financial struggles, but her health crises, she has said, give her a deep empathy for the suffering of others. Just as many families in 2008 brought children with Down syndrome to see Sarah Palin, whose youngest son was born with the condition, people with MS seek Romney out at her appearances.

“She is mobbed at almost every event by people who want to tell her their story,” Duprey said.

In Troy, a suburb of Detroit, she spoke about her coal-miner grandfather, who left Wales to give her father a better life, and how, in high school, she worked at the company founded by her inventor father.

She also shared a conversation she had with Mitt as they weighed a second White House try.

“ ‘I need to have you answer one thing,’ ” she told Mitt. “ ‘If you win the nomination and if you can beat Barack Obama, I need to know: Can you fix America?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ That’s all I needed to hear.”

As the crowd burst into applause, Ann Romney smiled.

“Maybe I should do all the talking,” she said, “and let him just stand here and watch me.”

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