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Mitt Romney's wife has her work cut out for her

In the political calculus of an American presidential campaign, it is an accepted equation: Candidate plus spouse and family equals a heartwarming domestic narrative.

So when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney appeared this week before his supporters to claim his teeny eight-vote victory in the Iowa caucuses, the woman at his side, wearing a bright red jacket and an even brighter smile, stepped forward to take her place in a titanic struggle that could become as compelling as the contest for the presidency itself.

Ann Romney, 61, introduced her husband as the "next president of the United States." Which makes her the next possible first lady. As such, she definitely has her work cut out for her.

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Her job – as is the duty of all would-be presidential consorts in an American system that seems not to have heard of spouses who lead their own engrossing lives – is to humanize her rather stiff husband, or, paradoxically to add spine to a man who has pandered so heavily to the extreme right, reversing his former pro-choice position, among others, that The Economist caustically described him this week as one "who still seems several vertebrae short of a backbone."

It is also to offer up a domestic narrative that makes Americans feel good about themselves by choosing it. Look at the Obamas, that stunning family tableau on election night in Chicago in 2008, of the then handsome president-elect, his gleaming wife Michelle, a poised professional woman, their two adorable daughters, African-American above all. Americans swooned, they oohed and aahed. "We put them there," they said, inordinately proud of themselves.

Of course, it took Michelle Obama, a lawyer by training, a while to catch on to the arcane wife-of rules during that volatile primary season, in which she was first derided as an "angry black woman," or unpatriotic, or a bit too honest about her husband's morning breath.

Now she's mastered the first-lady thing, spearheading a kids' nutrition campaign, coming across most of all as a concerned mother, and as a supportive but not subservient partner to her husband in what appears to be a vibrant, modern marriage. She is the third most admired woman in America, bested only by Oprah in second place, and ironically, by Hillary Clinton, her husband's former political foe, in first.

Ann Romney's story is a poignant one: As a college student whose father was a Welsh immigrant, she converted to the Mormon faith under the tutelage of her formidable father-in-law, former Michigan governor George Romney, while her beau Mitt was off in France doing missionary work. (Imagine asking the French to sign on to a religion that doesn't allow you to drink wine.) Didn't JFK's shrewd and scheming father also develop a special bond with Jackie? These political patriarchs, they know what their sons need to go for the brass ring.

A stay-at-home wife and the mother of five strapping grown sons, Mrs. Romney was diagnosed in 1997 with multiple sclerosis, and as she and her husband of 42 years recently told CNN's Wolf Blitzer during a cozy interview, it was the "darkest hour" of their lives. She was very ill back then and, although she is much improved by a combination of traditional and non-traditional medicine, still has to manage serious fatigue, which makes the rigours of a presidential campaign possibly akin to climbing Mt. Everest.

"I said we can deal with anything so long as it's not terminal," recalled Mr. Romney. "Ann's my life."

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His wife, who also successfully battled breast cancer in 2008, in turn said how "comforting" it was to know that "Mitt is always by my side." You've had a wonderful marriage," enthused Mr. Blitzer at one point. Yes, it was a strategic interview, but it was also moving, and came across as authentic as Mitt Romney has ever been thus far in his quest for the presidency. His wife seems dignified, straightforward, and quietly her own person.

It is the rare woman in middle age who hasn't had to deal with a significant health challenge, so Ann Romney's story will resonate, as will her murmured promise to "move the ball forward on MS."

But these are early days. Mr. Romney still has to bat back the latest comer, raving family-values guy Rick Santorum, whose own domestic details – doesn't believe in any birth control whatsoever, seven kids home-schooled, youngest daughter with a serious birth defect, saga of a stillborn son – have attracted significant notice. As The New York Times's Gail Collins drolly remarked, "large attractive families are a dime a dozen this year."

You rarely, if ever, in the highest echelon of American presidential politics, see an unattractive or highly imperfect spouse. By that point, they have been winnowed out. Newt Gingrich, for example, in his search for the ultimate political spouse, has gone through the kind of iterations most Japanese auto companies have undertaken, to arrive where he is today, with his third wife Callista, whose perfect blond helmet of hair should have its own entry on a ballot.

It worried me that Michele Bachmann's husband, Marcus, by her own telling, was "out buying doggy sunglasses" on her last day of campaigning, so it was a good thing she dropped out, sparing them further scrutiny.

On the day after Mitt Romney won the Iowa caucuses, the Daily Beast's Lloyd Grove burbled that Ann Romney, "resplendent" in red, "will be a formidable humanizing force in the battles to come – perhaps this campaign's Tipper Gore."

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Wait. Didn't Tipper and Al Gore eventually divorce after the longest lip-smacking marital kiss in the history of political podiums? But that was then, this is now, and the show must go on.

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