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Mitt and Ann Romney
Mitt and Ann Romney announced the former Massachusetts governor’s candidacy for president at the Henry Ford Museum last month in Dearborn, Mich. The family has been publicly supportive of the run. (Associated Press Photo / Tony Dejak)

Romney places focus on family

Candidate showcases wife, children in race

Every day is like Valentine's Day on the Mitt Romney campaign trail.

Sure, he stumps on terrorism, taxes, and the like. But not before he stumps on love. Call it the campaign for sweetheart-in-chief.

At major recent appearances, Romney has gone out of his way to showcase his wife, Ann, their 38-year marriage , and the Rockwell-esque family -- five sons, five daughters-in-law, 10 grandchildren -- it has produced.

"I came in with my sweetheart, who's here in the front row, I think, somewhere," he said at last weekend's Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington. "Ann, would you come on up and just say hi? Here comes my sweetheart, Ann Romney."

She laid it on thick, too, expressing excitement at their 38th anniversary this month. ("Glad you reminded me!" Romney rejoined.)

Such displays of marital bliss may appear warm and spontaneous, but underneath lies a shrewd political calculation. The couple's message is unmistakable: Romney is the lone leading GOP presidential candidate or prospective candidate still on his first marriage. More important , perhaps, he's the only one who isn't an admitted adulterer.

With "family values" a defining principle for many primary voters and competitors' past foibles making headlines, Romney is clearly trumpeting an aspect of his candidacy that none of his top-tier rivals can match, observers say.

"A lot of people have made the argument that if you can't commit to your wife, how are you going to commit to the American people?" said John Stemberger, an Orlando lawyer, activist, and member of the Arlington Group, a national coalition of influential social conservatives. "I think that's a fair argument to make, especially when you see a history or pattern of broken commitments."

By putting his family front and center, Romney also appears to be defusing concern among some conservatives over his past moderate positions on social issues, and over his Mormon faith, of which many mainline Christians remain wary.

Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he knows evangelicals who question elements of Romney's religion but back him because they see how central his family is.

"Even though they have deep divisions with his Mormon faith, they do believe his moral stances and his family-oriented life . . . tips the balance in their support for him," said Page, a pastor in Taylors, S.C. "It goes to the bottom line of what one's belief system is."

Romney's strategic use of his family chiefly involves putting his wife before as many audiences as possible. At a key Republican dinner in Spartanburg, S.C., last month, the routine went like this: Romney was introduced to the crowd, he then introduced his wife, and then his wife reintroduced him.

"I met Ann in high school -- we fell in love head over heels," Romney said to more than 600 people. "Been in love with her ever since."

Ann Romney did her own bragging about his "exceptional" record as spouse, businessman, and governor before saying, "My husband, my sweetheart, Mitt Romney. Thank you!"

Romney's sons are visible on the trail, too. His oldest, Tagg, joined him in South Carolina in January, while his youngest, Craig, made several stops last month in New Hampshire. And, recounting a scene reminiscent of "Leave It to Beaver," Romney described, in a recent interview with the website RealClearPolitics, how he raced his five boys around the high school track before a Boston fund-raiser in January.

"We were there at the dinner table and someone said, 'Hey, should we go have a 440 race at the high school?' " Romney said. "Sure enough, we all went upstairs and found our respective jogging shorts, put on tennis shoes or running shoes, went over to the high school, and had a 440 competition at the track."

Romney, who turns 60 tomorrow, came in last. "I was thinking I could beat my son Ben," he said, "but, boy, even though he's in medical school and has gotta be out of shape, he still beat me, darn it!"

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said that with the country still getting to know Romney, people are curious "where he came from and what kind of person he is."

"They have a very strong marriage, they have a very strong family," Madden said. "To know their family and to know Ann is to know Governor Romney."

Madden declined to address whether Romney was consciously drawing a distinction with his leading opponents, Senator John McCain of Arizona , who is on his second marriage, and Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor , who is on his third. At times, though, Romney and his wife have not been shy about pointing out that distinction .

At a GOP event in St. Louis last month, Ann Romney said she is often asked what sets her husband apart in the 2008 race. "He's had only one wife," she said.

In a video from last weekend's conference of conservatives posted on YouTube, the Romneys can be seen chuckling backstage with commentator Ann Coulter over a joke National Review Washington editor Kate O'Beirne once told about the many marriages of GOP presidential contenders.

"She said, '[Of] four leading Republican candidates for president, only one has one wife -- the Mormon,' " Romney said.

Still, Romney appears sensitive to comparing his marital history too explicitly with that of McCain and Giuliani. When ABC's George Stephanopoulos brought up the issue last month, Romney said, "I'm not going to suggest that people's marital lives should be part of a campaign."

Although Ann Romney has expressed frustration at her treatment in the media during past political campaigns, Madden said she loves campaigning with her husband and hasn't shown any reticence about it.

One variable that will determine her level of involvement is her health: Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998, she has said she may need to "moderate" her appearances.

Presidential candidates have made their families part of their campaigns for decades .

But Romney seems to be emphasizing his domestic tranquility just as opponents' messy family situations garner public scrutiny. Giuliani's three marriages -- particularly his bitter, public divorce from his second wife, Donna Hanover -- are being aired as he rises in the polls, as is his rocky relationship with his 21-year-old son, Andrew, who told ABC's "Good Morning America" earlier this month, "I got my values from my mother."

And conservative activists seem especially conscious of the candidates' marital records. William A. Donahue , Catholic League president, said last week that he had just finished doing a radio show on which someone proposed a GOP ticket with Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, former House speaker who is on his third wife -- a House clerk with whom he admitted having a long affair.

"And I said, 'Oh, so we're going to have six marriages then?' " Donahue said.

Gingrich acknowledged on evangelical leader James Dobson's radio program last week that he was having the affair at the same time House Republicans were targeting President Bill Clinton over his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Some conservatives say Giuliani and Gingrich will have more of a problem on this point than McCain, who long ago conceded that his infidelity helped cause his divorce from his first wife, Carol, after he returned from being a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

McCain has been married to his second wife, Cindy, for almost 30 years, and his former wife has been supportive of his presidential ambitions. (Two lesser-known GOP candidates, Mike Huckabee , former Arkansas governor, and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas , have each been married once.)

Several conservatives and observers said that while Romney's family is bound to make voters more comfortable with him, it won't automatically win him votes.

"Family life matters, and I think Christians in the South in particular look at that after Bill Clinton," said Steve Hogg, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Rock Hill, S.C. "But that in and of itself is not a reason to elect Romney."

Stephanie Coontz, an author and family scholar, said a strong family is still a valuable political asset.

But in traveling around the country, she said, she's noticed that the public now defines "values" far more broadly, de-emphasizing the importance of marriage.

"I don't believe the majority of the American people today believe the primary values issue is how long someone's been married," said Coontz, who teaches at Evergreen State University in Olympia, Wash. "As a niche market, it may be very effective. Whether it's enough for a national campaign, I'm dubious."

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com.

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