Credit: Marin Cogan, GQ
There are homemade posters depicting Ann Romney as first lady in glittered frames and bubble letters. There are the buttons with her name written in looping script worn on the lapels of Mitt's female supporters. There are the approving nods when Mitt mentions her, and the cheers of hardcore fans when she takes the stage. At the victory party in Vegas on Saturday night, Ann was first up to the podium, wearing a black pantsuit and pink blouse, looking a bit like Leslie Knope.
Ann also shares this with the Parks and Recreation heroine: she is easier, funnier and realer on the stump than her companion -- a natural politician. There's none of the Stepford-like quality that some of his critics use to describe Mitt. "Being a grandmother is all about revenge," she says on the trail to the delight of mothers and grandmothers. "When these little ones are naughty I look at my sons and say 'Oh, you guys deserve it.'" She tells them: "After the last time we ran I said we would never do this again. And I pretty much convinced Mitt of that -- but then he reminded me that I said that after every pregnancy."
Like Leslie and Ben on Parks and Rec, Mitt benefits most from his relationship with Ann; he seems visibly more at ease when she's by his side. "Mitt does better when she's there," says Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, an early endorser who has been traveling with the group. "He's more relaxed. He enjoys her being around." Says New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, another of Romney's endorsers: "She is unbelievable in terms of her warmth and her ability to tell the personal side of their relationship." Adds a campaign embed covering the Romneys: "It never seems forced with her, the way it does with him and with the kids."
At a rally in New Hampshire, when Occupy protesters started heckling, Ann, barely missing a beat, started leading chants of "Mitt, Mitt" to drown them out. This was the event where Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey leaned forward and told one of the women protesting, "You know, something may be going down tonight, but it ain't going to be jobs, sweetheart." After it turned contentious, Christie instinctively kicked the microphone back to Ann, "To send you off with the right type of inspiration, to get you going on Tuesday."
And she did. The crowd laughed when she laughed. Ann explained that she knew there would be challenges in this run. "I asked him one question, and this is why we decided to run. I said 'Mitt, can you save America?' and his answer was 'Yes.'" It was evidence that even as Romney continues to bring out his rotating cast of high profile endorsers like Christie, John McCain and Tim Pawlenty, Ann is still his best surrogate.
There's a very real way in which this matters: in Florida, Romney beat Gingrich among women voters by 24 percentage points. In Nevada, entrance polls indicate he won an even bigger share of women voters, 56 percent to Gingrich's 20 percent. As Maureen Dowd noted in a Sunday column, voters see in Callista Gingrich "the embodiment of the divide between Gingrich's public piety and private immorality." That was true of many women voters I met in Florida, who hated that Gingrich had left his ex-wives, and often made Callista the target of their derision. Brenda Copley, a self-described "conservative family Republican" who volunteers for the Romney campaign in Florida and came to an Orlando rally with a homemade Ann sign, said she thought society was in decline in part because traditional marriage bonds were weakening. Of the Gingriches, Copely said: "Even with redemption, and I believe in redemption, I don't believe he deserves to be president of the United States because what he would bring to that position would not set a good example for society. It is quite a contrast, and I'd have a real hard time referring to his wife as a first lady, because she broke up his home and she was a mistress with him while he was married."
In Ann, voters see the opposite. She survived breast cancer; she lives with multiple sclerosis; she's been his high school sweetheart and wife of 42 years. Ann's the embodiment of Mitt Romney's family values to GOP voters. "She and he would exemplify those wonderful characteristics and serve as tremendous role models in our society," Copely told me. Voters repeat the line Ann credits to him about when she was sick and worried about caring for her family, "I like cold cereal and peanut butter sandwiches. We can do fine with that as long as we have each other," as evidence of the man's good moral character. They look at her stumping for Mitt with gold framed aviators in hand and a grandson attached to her waist.
"She's an excellent speaker," said Michael Turo, a 19-year-old Quinnipiac University student and Romney supporter at one of their rallies. "And she's a great looking lady. She's the perfect first lady."
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