While Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate is dominating the run-up to the Republican convention, the woman he chose as his life partner could matter much more to the ticket’s success.
Romney’s choice of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., thrills conservative Republicans, but those voters are not the presumptive nominee’s biggest problem. His biggest problem is that regular voters don’t like him as much as Obama. That's especially true of women, and that’s why the stakes are high for Ann Romney’s speech on the crucial opening night of the convention.
Aside from the nominee himself, no one can make a more personal and heartfelt case for his candidacy than the mother of five sons and breast-cancer survivor currently battling multiple sclerosis. Who better to reassure women that Romney is on their side than his attractive, personable mate of 43 years?
“Mitt Romney is a very private man on a public quest, and we still have a sense that we do not know him,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, who advised Romney during his 2008 campaign. “The convention is the best opportunity for the Romney campaign to give you a window into his soul, and the best window into Mitt Romney the man is Ann Romney his wife.”
Cindy McCain introduced husband John McCain at the 2008 GOP convention, which meant her remarks would be overshadowed by the nominee’s acceptance speech. Not this year, when Ann Romney anchors Monday night’s lineup.
“We’re bookending the convention by beginning with Ann and ending with Mitt. In between we tell the Romney story,” said Russ Schriefer, a top Romney strategist overseeing the convention planning in Tampa, Fla. “People will learn who he is as a person, his character, and that goes to his family and his marriage.”
Filling out those personal gaps could be crucial for Romney, despite a sluggish economy that continues to drag down his opponent. The general election looks like a horse race, but voters have more positive personal views of President Obama than of Romney. In a Pew Research Center poll released earlier this month, only 37 percent of voters said they have a favorable view of Romney, while 52 reported having an unfavorable view. (Obama’s favorable and unfavorable ratings were 50 and 45 percent, respectively.) Romney’s ratings make him the least popular nominee in a Pew review of preelection surveys since 1988.
Romney’s image has been sullied by a torrent of Democratic attacks that portray him as rich corporate bully who mowed down struggling companies and their employees for profit. Obama has tried to raise further suspicion about Romney’s wealth by calling for him to release more than two years of tax returns.
The Obama campaign has also assailed Romney on women’s issues as it fights to preserve a gender gap that some polls peg in the double digits. In the latest anti-Romney attack aimed at female voters, Democrats are trying to yoke Romney to the antiabortion plank of the GOP platform, which does not include an exception for rape. Campaign spokesman Lis Smith said in a statement on Tuesday that several Romney supporters and advisers were present when Republicans passed as part of the platform an amendment banning abortion even in cases of rape and that they “stood silently while this vote took place.”
Romney has said he supports that exception, but he could get caught in the crossfire over a Republican Senate candidate in Missouri, Todd Akin, who used the term “legitimate rape” and suggested women could somehow biologically inhibit pregnancies resulting from rape. In a sign of how worried the GOP is about the gender gap in 2012, Romney joined a slew of other prominent Republicans on Tuesday in urging Akin to quit the race.
In countering the “war on women” line of attack waged by Democrats, Ann Romney may be her husband’s best weapon. Though she can’t do it alone — the campaign is also featuring prominent Republican women including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte — Romney is likely to help her husband the most with the types of women with whom he has already made inroads, including white, married, and blue-collar voters, said Republican pollster Ed Goeas.
“The respect and love she shows for Mitt after all these years of marriage is undeniable, and it helps humanize him and make him a stronger person in the eyes of the electorate,” said Goeas, who served as program director of the 2008 convention.
Romney frequently appears choreographed on the campaign trail, while his wife is a natural. In an ABC News/Washington Post survey in April, she scored 5 percentage points higher than her husband in favorability and 17 points lower in unfavorability ratings. (First lady Michelle Obama was also more popular than her husband in the survey.) Ann Romney has fielded questions at least twice about their tax returns in televised interviews, signaling that the campaign believes she can handle sensitive issues.
Romney makes her husband a better candidate, staffers say, by helping him relax and stay focused. Women in the crowd swoon when the buttoned-down corporate executive lovingly introduces his “sweetheart” at campaign events. “It’s a great love story,” Schriefer said. “These two people have been married more than 40 years, and they are as much in love as they were at 16.”
Imagine those heart string-pulling photographs of the handsome young couple and their growing brood projected onto the massive, high-resolution screens behind the convention stage. All of Romney’s sons will have a role at the convention, along with their spouses and children — “at least the ones who can stay up late,” Schriefer said.
The tableau will allow voters to picture a White House overflowing with family warmth, complete with grandchildren frolicking on the lawn. “If the Romney campaign can come out of this convention owning the word ‘family,’ they will have done a lot to make their candidate more empathetic and more likely to win the election,” Castellanos said.
The convention will also allow the campaign to address some of the other aspects of Romney’s life that have either gotten little attention or the wrong kind from Democratic attack ads. A member of the Mormon Church will give the invocation the night that Romney speaks.
Romney’s record running the Bain Capital private-equity firm and as the governor of Massachusetts will be major themes. “We’re not going to shy away from his business career,’’ Schriefer said. “He created tens of thousands of jobs and that’s an asset we want voters to know about.”