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When she speaks with someone, Ann Romney focuses on her subject with the intensity of a mother skilled in keeping a child’s attention.
That maternal presence -- and her experience with raising five sons -- has helped her connect with average voters in a way that comes less naturally for her husband, Mitt Romney.
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Her challenge today at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida -- her biggest stage yet -- will be to humanize her husband for Americans who haven’t so far found him very likable. She needs to show that he’s more than a former private equity executive good with numbers, and that he cares about their needs.
“A spouse can really personalize him,” said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames. “She needs to talk to the American public in a personal way about what she sees in Mitt Romney, as a husband and a father.”
Ann Romney said today that she has worked hard to craft her remarks, for what will be the most formal address she’s given.
“I had a lot of input in this I must say and a lot of tweaking where I felt like I was getting what I really wanted to say and from my heart,” she told reporters on a flight with her husband from Bedford, Massachusetts, to Tampa.
Tonight, she said, will be her first experience reading off a prepared text and using a teleprompter.
“I don’t like it,” she said of the teleprompter. “It’s hard. We’ll see how I do.”
Her husband is scheduled to appear at the convention tonight, two days earlier than planned.
Ann Romney, who did her walk-through of the convention center today, confirmed he would be there for her speech. Changes in the schedule because of the storm made it possible, she told reporters aboard the plane.
Ann Romney spent much of the flight to Tampa huddled with advisers, refining the speech. After practicing yesterday in a New Hampshire high school stadium, she baked hundreds of Welsh cakes, a type of British teatime sweet beloved by her husband.
Walking through the aisle of the campaign plane with the sweets, she joked with reporters about the input she has been getting from advisers and her husband on what outfit to wear.
“It was going to be like my wedding. I wasn’t going to let him know what I was going to wear but now they have opinions,” she said.
Mitt Romney’s likability gap was evident in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released yesterday. The poll, taken Aug. 22-25, showed 27 percent of registered voters find Romney to be more friendly or likable among the two candidates, compared with 61 percent for the incumbent.
Ann Romney’s speech probably will be the least political of any delivered at the convention and will touch on personal stories about her husband and family, according to a Romney adviser not authorized to discuss it in advance.
She’s likely to talk about her 14-year battle with multiple sclerosis, a testimonial she sometimes offers on the campaign trail to assure women that her husband can be relied upon.
“Ann Romney needs to testify to that,” Matthew Dowd, a Bloomberg analyst and political consultant told those gathered at a Bloomberg-sponsored panel discussion in Tampa yesterday.
She was also diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2009, about a year after her husband’s first White House bid. She rarely talks about the disease in public, although she has said in interviews that she had surgery and radiation after it was caught early.
Because of her multiple sclerosis, Ann Romney doesn’t have the campaign trail stamina of first lady Michelle Obama. In March, she had a flare-up of the autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system.
Ann Romney called the incident a “real scare” and said it was the result of the stress and strain of the campaign.
“It was just a reminder that I can’t keep up the pace,” she told NBC’s “Rock Center” program. She didn’t tell anyone at the time, she said, because she didn’t want to worry her husband.
When she travels with her husband, she sometimes plays a maternal role on the campaign plane, asking whether reporters are getting enough sleep.
This week, Ann Romney has practiced her presentation with the guidance of Stuart Stevens. The involvement of the campaign’s top strategist shows the importance of her address.
“She’s going to do terrific,” her husband predicted to reporters before arriving at one of the sessions.
Besides trying to help Mitt Romney connect with all voters, Ann Romney, 63, will have a second, critical audience.
Women, who represent 52 percent of the U.S. electorate, are a crucial group in every presidential election and polling shows President Barack Obama with a significant advantage among female voters. They prefer Obama over Romney by an eight-percentage- point margin, according to Gallup daily tracking polls conducted July 30 through Aug. 19.
The existence of Romney’s gender gap has received renewed focus in recent days after Todd Akin, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Missouri, said Aug. 19 that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy and so abortion shouldn’t be allowed in rape cases. Democrats have worked to keep the controversy alive and have continued to criticize Republicans as being hostile toward women.
No matter how well Ann Romney does in her speech, Bystrom said she suspects it will do little to narrow the gender gap.
“The gap is more issue-based,” she said, noting the different policy views on abortion rights, environmental matters and education held by Romney and Obama.
In April, she was dragged into a campaign controversy when Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said in an interview on CNN that Ann Romney, who grew up wealthy and hasn’t had a career outside the home, couldn’t relate to working women struggling in the economic downturn.
Ann Romney fired back at Rosen’s comments, saying raising five sons was a full-time job that her husband considered as important as running a private-equity firm.
“I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys,” she wrote on her Twitter account. “Believe me, it was hard work.”
Ann Romney’s horse dressage hobby, including the appearance of her mare, Rafalca, in this summer’s Olympic Games in London, opened the family to more criticism that it lives a privileged existence. Her husband had added to that notion in February when he said his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs.’
Unlike Michelle Obama, who generated controversy during her husband’s campaign four years ago for saying that for the first time in her adult life she was ‘‘really proud of my country,” Ann Romney has so far avoided missteps.
A USA Today/Gallup Poll released yesterday shows 42 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Ann Romney, which is on par with other presidential contenders’ wives about to make their first convention appearances. That’s below Michelle Obama, who was viewed favorably by 64 percent of adults in an AP-GfK poll conducted Aug. 16-20.
“Michelle Obama and Ann Romney are more equally matched on the campaign trail than we have had in a long time,” Bystrom said. “They are both good communicators for their husbands.”
Not to be outdone, Obama’s re-election campaign has Michelle Obama scheduled to make a high-profile appearance tomorrow night on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
-- Editors: Jeanne Cummings, Jodi Schneider
To contact the reporters on this story: John McCormick in Tampa at firstname.lastname@example.org; Lisa Lerer in Tampa at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at firstname.lastname@example.org