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Ann Romney steps into spotlight

Traditional image sets her apart

Ann Romney introduced her sons and extended family through family photos while speaking during a meeting of the Florida Republican Women's Network in Orlando, Fla., yesterday. In the photo is her son Josh and his wife and children. Ann Romney introduced her sons and extended family through family photos while speaking during a meeting of the Florida Republican Women's Network in Orlando, Fla., yesterday. In the photo is her son Josh and his wife and children. (PHELAN M. EBENHACK/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

ORLANDO, Fla. -- In a hotel ballroom yesterday morning, Ann Romney stood before about 150 Republican women and held up oversized photographs of her five sons and their families. The women, mostly older, many wearing black T-shirts with rhinestone emblems of their group's website, leaned in, nodding.

There was Tagg, with his wife and three children -- "That granddaughter, by the way, is a brilliant girl." Here was Matt and his twin girls -- "trouble with a capital T" -- and Josh, who went to all 99 counties in Iowa in a Winnebago, and his family. There was Ben, with his wife -- "he married way above himself," she said, to laughter -- and Craig, with his wife, Mary, and baby, Parker, "who has stolen all of our hearts, and he will steal yours too."

"This is a family affair that we're involved in," she said.

In past presidential campaigns, Romney would be standard fare as a candidate's spouse -- a wife who devoted most of her life to her husband and children rather than pursuing a profession, and a sunny presence on the campaign trail who keeps her thoughts on policy and politics mostly to herself.

Florida primary in violation of Democratic rules. A10.

But among this year's crop of candidates' spouses -- replete with divor cees, career women, and even a former president -- her adherence to the first lady archetype sets her apart.

"We have more nontraditional spouses this time than we've had in a while -- nontraditional in different ways, which is pretty interesting," said Kathleen A. Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "Ann Romney is much more the traditional spouse in this election, and she's sort of alone in that regard."

The contrast has become increasingly striking in recent weeks as Romney has taken a more prominent role in her husband's campaign. At the same time, other candidates' spouses have drawn attention for their political pronouncements on the stump, or deeper scrutiny of their personal histories.

Many analysts say Ann Romney plays a critical role helping her husband appeal to voters who care deeply about family values -- and who make up a substantial portion of the Republican primary electorate. Advisers to Romney say he also performs better on the stump when she is by his side.

"Next to Mitt himself, she is the most important person in this campaign," said Charlie Manning, a consultant to the campaign.

Among the top Republican contenders, the Romneys' harmonious -- single -- marriage is unique. While the Romneys fell in love in high school, married in college, and have five children and 10 grandchildren, Rudy and Judith Giuliani, each now in their third marriages, began dating when the candidate was still married to the mother of his two children. A venomous profile in Vanity Fair magazine recently portrayed Judith Giuliani, who publicly disclosed one of her previous marriages for the first time in March, as a scheming home wrecker with a lust for luxury.

Fred Thompson's wife, Jeri, also previously married, has been labeled a "trophy wife" because she is [and looks] a quarter-century younger than her husband; she also has been blamed for the turmoil in her husband's nascent campaign. And Cindy McCain, John McCain's second wife, earned notoriety in the past for stealing drugs from her own charity while she was addicted to painkillers.

"It's, 'Here comes Fred Thompson with Ooh-la-la, and here comes Rudy Giuliani with -- is that your second or third wife? And McCain -- yes, he's a national hero . . . but oh, by the way, didn't he leave his wife for a younger woman?' " said Elizabeth A. Sherman, an adjunct professor at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University. "The main thing you have to do in a primary is distinguish yourself from a very crowded field, and [Romney] distinguishes himself so beautifully on family values."

The spouses of the major Democratic candidates, meanwhile, are lawyers who have become increasingly political, even outspoken, on the stump.

An emboldened Elizabeth Edwards, a key strategist for her husband John's campaign, has sharply criticized his rivals' votes for an Iraq war-funding bill and accused Senator Barack Obama of Illinois of being "holier than thou" on the war.

Michelle Obama, caused a ruckus recently over an apparent swipe at the Clintons -- "If you can't run your own house, you certainly can't run the White House." Then there is Bill Clinton, a former president whose marital transgressions created a sex scandal in the White House.

In an interview Friday in New Hampshire, Elizabeth Edwards said she welcomed the "pretty wide spectrum" of spouses this campaign.

"It's sort of a picture of America, really, isn't it?" she said. "It's actually kind of good that there's no cookie-cutter example, I think, because there shouldn't be."

Asked whether she thought voters preferred a potential first lady who, like her, had pursued a career outside the home, or like Ann Romney, who had not, Edwards said today's electorate respected both choices.

"Everyone's always able to relate better to somebody who has a life closer to theirs," she said. "So there may be some working women who don't relate as much to Ann Romney, there may be some women who work in the home and relate better to her."

Ann Romney, 58, even as she takes on a starring role in the campaign, tends to keep her thoughts on policy matters to herself, confining her public words mostly to the realm of her children and grandchildren, her husband's character, and her adventures on the campaign trail. She also speaks movingly -- and frankly -- about her battle with multiple sclerosis, even admitting she wanted to die after her diagnosis in 1998.

In Orlando yesterday, she told the story of her battle with the disease and used it to connect with the audience.

"Live life long enough and you will have your burdens, that's what I've learned from this disease," she said, her voice trembling. "I look out at this room. You all look happy and smiling -- you know what I know? I know every single one of you has a bag of rocks over your shoulder. . . . And the other thing I've learned is we need to lighten each other's burdens."

After her speech, several women whose lives have been touched by MS came to greet her, some in tears. Romney said she spends part of each week calling people she has met on the campaign trail who have multiple sclerosis, or their family members who suffer from the disease.

If some stay-at-home mothers feel a stigma associated with not having a career outside the home, Romney revels in her choice, telling audiences that when she was a frazzled young mother, her husband would call home from the office and remind her that her job was more important than his.

"We have five sons, lovely sons, and 10 grandchildren," she said in a July radio ad. "I had to wait until my first granddaughter. Finally, I get to buy pink!"

In Romney's past campaigns in Massachusetts, the family's squeaky clean image did not always go over well. She endured ridicule after a lengthy 1994 interview with the Globe, in which she said she and her husband had never had a serious argument and recounted their struggles as a young married couple having to sell stock to make ends meet. During the 2002 run for governor, an ad featuring her and her husband talking about how they met came across as saccharine to some. Romney's poll numbers tumbled.

Aides in those campaigns, however, said Ann Romney was always an asset and involved, traveling with her husband to events, speaking to groups of activists on her own, and helping at the campaign headquarters.

She was barely visible, however, as first lady in Massachusetts. In a brief interview in Iowa earlier this month, she said she worked hard in various charitable organizations, but the media never covered her. "I was busy, it's just that no one cared!" she said with a laugh.

In his presidential race, however, she has taken on an increasingly public, and vocal, role. She was featured this month on ABC's "Nightline," and last month in People magazine. Thursday, she appeared solo before Republicans in South Carolina, and Friday she appeared by her husband's side at a major healthcare speech in Florida.

Next month, she said, the campaign is rolling out a website devoted to her, AnnRomney.com, which will feature videos of her on the trail, issues she cares about (such as at-risk youth and multiple sclerosis), a photo gallery, press clippings, and an interactive feature.

Political specialists say the Romneys' monogamous marriage and large, apparently happy family could be a significant asset in the GOP primary, particularly given Romney's former support of abortion rights and his Mormon faith, a cause for skepticism among some Christian evangelicals.

"Romney's strategy is to focus on the base," Sherman said. "He has got to show a lot of Christian conservatives his bona fides. His message is going to be, 'Not only am I against abortion and gay marriage, but I practice what I preach. And voila, look at my beautiful stay-at-home wife, we have raised five children and she has focused on being a loving wife, a caring mother and she has devoted her entire life to her family.' That speaks volumes to the base."

Asked yesterday if she thought voters found her profile appealing, Ann Romney said, "It's just who we are."

Sylvia Rice, 77, of Orlando, said she was deciding whether to support Giuliani or Romney. But yesterday, Ann Romney "pretty much won me over."

"She obviously is a person who has the warmth and understanding and compassion that the country needs in a presidential wife."

Globe correspondent James W. Pindell contributed to this report from Manchester, N.H. Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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