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Family Missions: Humanize the Candidates

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Lost in translation: Barbara and Jenna Bush earned mixed reviews.(Joe Cavaretta/AP)

Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is known as a policy wonk with a zeal for shrinking government and overhauling Medicare. But ahead of the Republican convention in Tampa, his wife, Janna, sought to give a more personal glimpse of Ryan, describing him in a People magazine interview as someone who is “low maintenance,” has a sunny disposition, and “goes with the flow.”

Such efforts by spouses and other family members to humanize candidates at the top of the Republican and Democratic tickets have become standard fare in modern politics. That’s why Janna Ryan, Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, and other family members will have high-profile roles at the Tampa convention. Similarly, when Democrats gather in Charlotte next week, President Obama’s family and Vice President Joe Biden’s large clan will be an important part of the tableau.

 

So crucial is Ann Romney’s speech in Tampa that even before Tropical Storm Isaac became a threat, her appearance was moved to Tuesday from its original Monday slot because TV networks had announced they were not going to cover Monday’s proceedings.

In Charlotte, first lady Michelle Obama will speak on the convention’s opening night. The Obamas’ daughters, Sasha and Malia, will not have speaking roles, although they will likely appear on stage with their parents as they did in Denver in 2008.

Conventions are about narratives, and often the people best suited to shape them are those who are closest to the candidates. The exceptions have been family members tainted by scandal, such as Jimmy Carter’s younger brother Billy and Bill Clinton’s half-brother, Roger.

 

“The role of family in terms of the image to the public is quite simply to tell us more about who these candidates are as people,” said Christopher Mann, a political scientist at the University of Miami. “Is this someone I’d like to have as my next-door neighbor? Is this someone I’d like to have a beer with?”

Appearances this year by Ann Romney and the couple’s five grown sons and many grandchildren will be part of an effort to improve Mitt Romney’s likability. The Obama campaign has sought to define Romney as an out-of-touch and ruthless private-equity investor. Ann Romney is expected to emphasize her husband’s warmer side by describing him as a devoted husband and father who helped her through her struggle with multiple sclerosis.

“She’s a good spokesperson for the campaign and one of the best surrogates the campaign has,” said Martin Cohen, a political scientist at James Madison University.

Michelle Obama, who in 2008 spoke of her husband’s upbringing by a single mother and the financial struggles his family faced, will again weave personal stories into her remarks, according to a senior campaign official. But the first lady will focus this time on her observations of the president during his first term in office and will talk about how his life experiences influenced his approach to the role.

 

Family members have had mixed results in trying to humanize their candidates.

In 2004, President Bush’s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, then 22, received so-so reviews. Critics targeted what they wore as well as what they said—including joking that their grandmother, former first lady Barbara Bush, was not very hip and was “someone who “thinks Sex and the City is something married people do but never talk about.”

That same year, at the Democratic convention in Boston, John Kerry’s daughter Alexandra told a funny story of how the senator and Vietnam veteran rescued her sister’s pet hamster, Licorice, by administering CPR when it fell off a dock and nearly drowned. The audience in the hall loved it, but her father went on to lose.

This article appears in the August 28, 2012 edition of NJ Convention Daily.

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