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Opinion | Peter S. Canellos

Putting Ann Romney in the spotlight a smart move by GOP

Ann Romney spoke in Frankenmuth, Mich., on June 19 with husband Mitt by her side.

Associated Press

Ann Romney spoke in Frankenmuth, Mich., on June 19 with husband Mitt by her side.

TAMPA, Fla. — Isaac did the Republican National Convention one big favor: It gave organizers a good reason to move Ann Romney’s speech from Monday night, when the broadcast networks weren’t planning to cover it, to Tuesday night. The candidate’s wife will address the convention on national TV, just before New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers the official keynote address.

Christie, one of the GOP’s most ferocious attack dogs, probably seemed a natural choice to play the traditional keynoter’s role of firing up the delegates. But that was before last week, when Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin made his infamous comment about “legitimate rape,” the party’s platform endorsed a constitutional amendment banning abortion in all cases, and Democrats intensified their accusations that the GOP is waging a “war on women.”

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Christie may be an effective speaker, but he won’t help the Republicans with their gender divide. The New Jersey governor fully embraces his state’s no-nonsense reputation. He likes to shout down hecklers, punch the air with his finger when making a point, and, mostly, denounce Democrats in colorful terms. But he can turn people off as quickly as he turns them on. His rough edges were fully on display on Monday when, while addressing the GOP California delegation, he trashed the state’s 74-year-old governor, Jerry Brown, as an “old retread.”

He may have meant “old” in the sense of old-fashioned ideas. But it’s quite easy to imagine senior citizens taking offense. “I mean, he won the New Jersey presidential primary over Jimmy Carter when I was 14 years old,” Christie chortled about Brown.

Women are far more likely than men to express concerns over a lack of comity in politics, and those women, at least, are absolutely certain to find Christie’s barbs a turn-off. So what could convention organizers do to mitigate the expected damage?

In today’s GOP, there are very few women famous enough to take the spotlight off Christie. But Ann Romney is one of them. As the candidate’s wife, she’s more central to the presidential campaign than Christie, and arouses natural curiosity and interest. As it happens, she is also a compelling speaker.

That hasn’t always been so. When her husband first entered politics, she seemed a reluctant presence on the campaign trail, and her discomfort struck some people as condescension; a few minor gaffes, suggesting an excess of noblesse oblige, cemented her reputation for being stiff in front of the camera. Not anymore. The 2012 Ann Romney is one of her husband’s great assets, at ease and empathetic before crowds, and an expression of the Romney family as a warm, Bush-like, multi-generational clan. Expect lots of talk about Mitt as a loving husband and father, supportive in all the right ways, a person to count on when the chips are down.

This kind of speech doesn’t serve to reassure the types of professional women who normally gravitate toward the Democrats. But it will appeal to family-oriented women who may well appreciate Barack Obama’s dignified bearing and measured tone, while recoiling at the harshness of GOPers like Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, or Christie himself. The Republicans are lucky to have Ann Romney to share the Tuesday spotlight, and glad that the weather gave them an excuse to put her there.

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