It was a vintage Mitt Romney moment. “I’ll introduce to you the heavyweight champion of my life,’’ he told voters in Ohio, with his wife, Ann, by his side. Then he awkwardly backtracked. “I didn’t mean weight, that didn’t come out right, she’s just a great fighter is what I mean.’’
It was Ann who took the microphone a few moments later and lightened the moment.
“Well, if this goes on much longer I will be the heavyweight champion,’’ she joked. “Things are getting a little tight. This is what happens if you’re on the campaign trail.’’
Ann Romney has been described by campaign officials and friends as her husband’s most valuable surrogate as he fights for the Republican presidential nomination. She appears open and honest, while Mitt can seem aloof. He can be awkward; she is charming. Ann has maintained an independent schedule since the summer, the first of the candidates’ spouses to do so. Recently, she has played a more visible role by Mitt’s side. She shies away from policy, but shows her husband’s human side.
“When she says she’s known Mitt for 45 years, and he is a genuinely good man who can lead the nation to another place, it has weight and authenticity,’’ said Kerry Healey, Romney’s lieutenant governor when he was governor of Massachusetts and current foreign policy coordinator.
Campaign officials say Ann Romney’s more visible role is due to the changing campaign. While she used to speak at fund-raisers and make quick solo trips to New Hampshire, Romney has taken on the role of introducing her husband on election nights, appearing with him at town hall events, and making solo trips to states far from Massachusetts.
Ann Romney, who has multiple sclerosis, cannot keep up the punishing pace of her husband. Yet she recently told voters in Ohio that she had not been home since Jan. 10.
“He’s lucky she’s been able to maximize his reach like nobody else has been able to do for a candidate before,’’ said Darlene Jordan, a longtime friend of the Romneys, who is involved in the campaign. “People really want to see Ann Romney, hear what Ann Romney has to say.’’
In recent days, Romney has appealed specifically to women on economic issues - helping her husband convey his economic message, and perhaps trying to appeal to independent women turned off by the Republican candidates’ recent focus on limiting access to contraception. “Do you know what women care about? . . . Women care about jobs. Women care about the economy,’’ she said during a speech in Boston on Super Tuesday.
Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, said of Romney: “She’s incredibly articulate and competent, able to communicate his message to an audience almost as well as he can. . . . She can humanize him in a way that makes him seem a little less mechanical, a little more real, which factors into likability and assessments of character.’’
Ann Romney faced criticism recently for saying on Fox News, “I don’t even consider myself wealthy.’’ The comment played into the story line of a candidate whose wealth makes him seem out of touch. But she was talking about her health challenges, saying that material wealth can come and go, and she did feel rich when it came to her relationships. It was Mitt Romney who said his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs.’’
Romney fits into a long line of spouses who have helped candidates connect with voters. Hillary Rodham Clinton was active during Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, which Lawless said was important because Bill Clinton was facing accusations of marital infidelity. Michelle Obama humanized her husband on the campaign trail, even saying he was “snore-y and stinky’’ when he woke up.
“People found [Obama] a great orator, and she was the one who suggested he’s not perfect,’’ Lawless said. “He’s a pretty regular guy, a good husband and good father. He doesn’t walk on water.’’
Jennifer Lucas, assistant professor of politics at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, said Ann Romney has a particular parallel with Elizabeth Edwards, wife of 2008 Democratic candidate John Edwards, because of their illnesses - Edwards died of breast cancer; Romney survived it. “You can’t help but feel some sympathy for a couple that is clearly going through such terrible difficulties in terms of their medical conditions,’’ Lucas said.
Lucas said the wives make candidate seem like someone voters can relate to. “I think Romney certainly needs that,’’ Lucas said. “Connecting with voters doesn’t seem as easy to him.’’
Ann Romney gave some insight into how she sees her position when she was questioned by Neil Cavuto on Fox News. “You’re almost too perfect in the eyes of people,’’ Cavuto said. “Don’t you think your family should talk about your struggles?’’
“That’s my role,’’ she responded. “Maybe it’s time for me to start sharing some of those stories . . . how I’ve seen Mitt in dealing with relationships with people where he’s really had to counsel them and help them and be there for them in a very real way.’’ She said she sees her role as showing voters another side of her husband, as a supportive family man.
When it comes to Republican rival Newt Gingrich, the Romneys, married 42 years, offer an implicit contrast with a candidate who has been married three times and admitted infidelity.
Julie Alexander, a Jackson County, Mich., commissioner, originally liked Gingrich, but voted for Romney after hearing Mitt and Ann at separate events. Alexander said Ann Romney struck her as a very supportive wife. “She offered personal qualities to Mitt that show his strong leadership,’’ Alexander said. She said it made a difference to hear about Mitt Romney’s “devotion and passion to his family.’’
Healey said Ann was always a trusted adviser to her husband. She attended strategy meetings at their Belmont home during his gubernatorial campaign, and was a “final gut check’’ before Mitt Romney got into or out of a race. Though Ann Romney campaigned with her husband during his 2008 presidential run, their sons took the most prominent role. Healey said Romney now seems to have a more public role than in previous campaigns.
“If anything, the change was one where she went from someone being supportive to someone who was being actively enthusiastic about the campaign,’’ Healey said.Matt Viser of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Shira Schoenberg can be reached at email@example.com.