It was Ann Romney’s first major test as a would-be political wife and by all accounts it was a disaster.
Mitt Romney was fighting his first election in 1994, an uphill battle for a Senate seat Edward Kennedy had held for more than 30 years. Ms. Romney invited a reporter from The Boston Globe to their home to counter her family’s image of privilege, something that did not sit well with Massachusetts voters.
Instead, she chatted about dieting down to her college weight (117 pounds) and how the couple had struggled as students, living off inherited stock investments. Asked to describe herself in three words, Ms. Romney foundered: “Peaceful, loving and serene,” she managed. At one point, she compared a political campaign to pregnancy.
“The thing that’s nice about pregnancy is that in the end, you have a baby,” she told the reporter, who concluded that his encounter with Ms. Romney in her million-dollar mansion resembled something like a trip to the Twilight Zone.
As Mr. Romney forges to the front in the Republican primaries, his wife is being heralded as one of his greatest assets, a humanizing force that counters his rigidity. She is the most visible of the Republican candidates’ wives.
Her stories of dealing with debilitating multiple sclerosis and her brush with breast cancer have moved crowds to tears, helping her – and by extension, her husband – connect with voters. In speeches and interviews she weaves stories about how she has used alternative therapies, such as reflexology and horseback riding, to heal. In Republican households “Baron,” her horse, has become something of a folk hero.
Seventeen years ago, however, she was squarely blamed for her husband’s Senate loss. She was dismissed as a millstone that did nothing to help his political ambition and was written off as arm candy.
Now, in a Republican contest filled with unexpected moments, Ms. Romney’s quiet metamorphosis from a coddled housewife to political powerhouse has been equally dramatic.
“In the past there was this idea that the Romneys were this golden couple, they had it all. How can you root for someone that has it all?” observed Thomas Whalen, a political science professor at Boston University.
“In this race, she has opened up about her health struggles. Since then it’s been onwards and upwards for her image. She’s really learned from her mistakes,” he said.
On the campaign trail, the Romneys have sought to project themselves as the embodiment of social-conservative values. Compared to rival Newt Gingrich, whose marriage to his third wife, Callista, followed an affair, it’s not exactly a stretch.
Ann Davies, the daughter of a Welsh immigrant, was 15 years old when she went on her first date with her future husband. The son of Michigan’s then governor picked her up in a red Marlin made by American Motors Corp., the company his father served as chairman and CEO. Armed with a bottle of sparkling grape juice and two chilled glasses, he took her to see The Sound of Music. A few months later, he proposed.
She converted to his religion, Mormonism, at the age of 18. The process was overseen by Mr. Romney’s father, George, who performed the ritual when she decided to be baptized. Marriage had to wait another year, when her fiancé returned from two years spent as a missionary in France.
The newlyweds moved to Belmont in 1971 so Mr. Romney could attend graduate school. Ms. Romney spent much of the next decade pregnant, staying home to raise five sons.
“Mitt thought it was important for me to stay home with the children, and I was delighted,” she told The Boston Globe.
Ms. Romney’s fate, friends say, was largely decided by her faith.
“In the Mormon religion we really teach that the most significant thing that one can do during our life on this Earth is to be a parent. The legacy we leave is our family,” Grant Bennett, who has been friends with the Romneys for 33 years, said in an interview with The Globe And Mail.
“Michelle Obama is a lawyer and Callista Gingrich had a career on Capitol Hill,” he added. “Ann took a more traditional approach. She’s been a full-time mother. I think, if you were to press Ann on this, she would say she made the right choice.”
While Mr. Romney pulled long hours nurturing his consulting and private-equity firm, her days were spent changing diapers, leading her children in daybreak Mormon sermons and ferrying the older ones to and from school.
Unlike other women of her generation, who balanced family with careers, Ms. Romney never felt pulled to a professional life, even though she earned a Bachelor of Arts in French from Harvard University Extension School.
While Ms. Obama earned degrees from Princeton and Harvard before launching into a successful career in law at the same firm where she met her husband, Ms. Romney seemed ever deferential to hers.
“I made a mistake in taking a class with him, then decided never again,” she once said. “He graduated first in his class, and he’s so extraordinarily bright that he was always the brightest. If you were in his class, he’d bring down your grade below the curve.”
Her image of a blissed-out, stay-at-home mom did not play well with voters in Massachusetts when Mr. Romney ran his failed Senate bid. “In a liberal, northeastern state, you feel almost embarrassed to say you’re a stay-at-home mom,” Tagg, her eldest son, told The New York Times.
Four years after that race, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the brain and spinal chord. Mr. Romney would later describe that day as the worst of his life. Ms. Romney sought relief through a mix of treatments: mainstream medicine, alternative therapies and horseback riding.
“There is huge merit in both Eastern and Western medicine, and I’ve taken a little bit from both,” she explained in an interview with The Boston Globe.
Mr. Romney has often said his political ambition would only be quelled if his wife’s health deteriorated. “He has always said that Ann comes first and if we do this, we’ll do it together,” Mr. Bennett said.
Illness, in some ways, is a great equalizer. Ms. Romney’s struggle with MS, and a subsequent lumpectomy after her 2008 diagnosis of breast cancer, amplified support for the couple among people who could suddenly relate to them.
“When you have a health crisis, it’s transformative,” said Dr. Whalen, the political science professor. “I think her health problems have generated a lot of sympathy among Americans. Now she seems much more like us, like an everyday person.”
As Mr. Romney’s campaign steams ahead, she is assuming an increasingly prominent role. In one television ad, she praises her husband’s character. She has been at his side during the primaries. She is a sought-after guest on political talk shows and ladies’ luncheons across the country.
Shelley Taub, a former Michigan state representative who has known the Romney family for years, says Ms. Romney has learned valuable lessons from early missteps.
“She’ll be a terrific first lady. People just love her. She’s warm, she’s attractive. There’s nothing phony about her,” she said.
On a recent appearance on Fox News, where Ms. Romney was grilled about Mr. Romney’s record at Bain Capital, she deftly handled the interviewer’s questions, rising to her husband’s defence. It was a far cry from the housewife whose chief complaint was that she wasn’t as thin as she should be.
Her husband later praised her at a rally with an awkward joke: “She was marvellous. They asked her tough questions and she did exactly what you’re supposed to do: She didn’t answer them.”