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GOP candidates’ families humanize the campaign

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney can seem robotic and scripted. Not so his wife.

Ann Romney gushes about the grandchildren, passes around the family Christmas card, and pokes fun at her husband. “It would be much more fun to hear me than Mitt,’’ Ann Romney told a living room full of voters in Salem, N.H. “I tell stories. Mitt just talks about boring things.’’ (She quickly added, “We care about those boring things.’’)

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The candidates’ spouses and families have become a ubiquitous presence on the campaign trail during the Republican presidential race. Most candidates have run ads highlighting their families. On the trail, it falls to family members to humanize them.

Family members “demonstrate the candidate is something other than a presidential candidate,’’ said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. “A family man or family woman. Somebody who has normal interpersonal relationships.’’

Criticized for flip-flopping on issues, Romney points to his personal consistency - his 42-year marriage to Ann. An ad showcasing his relationship with his family offers an implied contrast with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been married three times and admitted to infidelity.

“There’s no question Romney probably has the family edge,’’ Lawless said. “Not only does his family look like a Christmas card, there are no skeletons in the closet as far as we know.’’

Four of Romney’s five adult sons have campaigned for him (the fifth is a radiology resident). Josh Romney, who traveled across Iowa during his father’s 2008 campaign, returned this year. Craig Romney, who speaks Spanish, talks to Hispanic media.

Ann Romney has maintained an independent campaign schedule for months. Despite the Romneys’ wealth, she paints a picture of a typical family, talking about her challenges as a stay-at-home mom. “As soon as I finished one batch of laundry, another load was ready to go,’’ she recalled in Salem.

Similarly, Mary Kaye Huntsman reveals personal details about Jon Huntsman, her husband of 28 years. She talks about the difficulty of leaving behind their son, then a high school football player, when Huntsman became ambassador to China. She speaks of walking with her husband through the hospital after their daughter, Liddy, was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and seeing children battling cancer. “He said ‘We must remember what she doesn’t have,’ ’’ Mary Kaye Huntsman told voters in Whitefield, N.H.

Some spouses take a more political role. At an Exeter, N.H., women’s tea, Anita Perry, a nurse married to Governor Rick Perry of Texas, railed against President Obama’s financial reforms and health care overhaul. She defended her husband’s decision to give in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants, rattling off provisions of the law. “Rick wanted to educate them and make them taxpayers, or if you don’t, they become tax wasters, on social welfare,’’ Anita Perry said.

Sometimes spouses get the wrong kind of attention. Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann’s husband, Marcus, has drawn questions about his attempts as a therapist to “cure’’ gay people.

But others can deflect negativity. Faced with news stories saying Gingrich brought divorce papers to his wife while she was in the hospital, Gingrich’s daughter, Jackie Cushman, wrote a column saying her parents were already in the middle of a divorce, which her mother requested. Cushman and her sister, Kathy Lubbers, have campaigned for their father. Gingrich’s wife, Callista, is often by his side.

The most attention-getting family members are the “Jon 2012 girls.’’ Huntsman’s daughters - Liddy, 23, Abby, 25, and Mary Anne, 26 - have gotten nearly 350,000 hits on a YouTube video mocking an ad by former candidate Herman Cain, which featured his mustached campaign manager smoking a cigarette. The Huntsman girls, sporting fake mustaches, blew bubbles. A video titled “Huntsman’s Back,’’ a remake of the Justin Timberlake song “SexyBack,’’ hurled insults at Huntsman’s rivals, leading one Huntsman staffer to tell the Washington Post the daughters had “gone rogue.’’

The daughters have over 18,000 Twitter followers. Abby helps the campaign with media booking, Mary Anne with finance, and Liddy with social media.

“Last cycle, youth was really involved because the hope and change campaign [of Obama] was really attractive to the younger generation,’’ Liddy Huntsman said at a forum with her sister Mary Anne and their mother at UMass Lowell. “This cycle a lot of people lost that hope. . . . Our role is we want to get the youth involved as much as possible.’’

Often, families provide moral support. Representative Ron Paul of Texas brought 25 family members to an Iowa straw poll. Linda Paul, 21, a Texas A&M student, and Lisa Paul, 23, a medical student at the University of Texas, campaigned with their grandfather in New Hampshire in December. Their role, Linda Paul said, is “traveling with him, just being here to support him.’’ Paul featured his family in a cookbook, and his son, US Senator Rand Paul, recorded an ad for him.

Dante Scala, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, said family helps Paul’s image. “Often you think of Paul as this kind of John the Baptist figure, a lone figure out in the wilderness,’’ Scala said. “This helps him trying to reach mainstream voters, to show he’s a family man, he’s a doctor.’’

Jennifer Lucas, assistant professor of politics at Saint Anselm College, said ultimately, candidates’ families will not have a major impact. But, she said, “It is part of the bigger package that we can’t know these people intimately so we have to draw signals from their lives, the kind of people they’re married to. It can help voters feel they understand those people.’’

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com.
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