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02.19.11

Ann Romney's Survival Instinct

She's battled cancer and has multiple sclerosis, but no one seems more eager to launch Mitt Romney's next presidential campaign than his wife--maybe not even Mitt. By Shushannah Walshe

She's battled cancer and has multiple sclerosis, but no one seems more eager to launch Mitt Romney's next presidential campaign than his wife—maybe not even Mitt.

To hear Mitt Romney tell it, he’s still not sure if he wants to run for president. Ann, his wife of 41 years, is not nearly as coy.

“I know Mitt as a person, a very good person. I have also seen him as a leader. And I, for one, would like to see him lead the country as President of the United States,” she told the capacity crowd at CPAC on February 11.

Different versions of these words are often heard coming from the mouths of political spouses, whose job it is to be publicly seen as fully behind their partner's candidacies. And since her husband's first run for office in 1994—a quixotic stab at trying to unseat Senator Ted Kennedy—Ann Romney has evolved from political neophyte into one of her husband's most visible supporters.

It wasn't for lack of hardship. That early race gave the Romneys their first taste of life on the campaign trail, and Ann her first taste of press scrutiny. She received some unfavorable coverage that suggested she was not relatable to the average Bay State voter after telling a reporter that she and her husband had never had a real argument. Even so, Romney’s first press secretary, Ann Murphy—who would often have to answer the question “Mitt who?" when trying to get petition signatures—says Ann remained upbeat throughout her husband's long-shot bid.

“She was always very friendly and supportive, especially with the volunteers in the campaign office," says Murphy. "She always made sure they had what they needed. She lights up a room when you are around. She’s just that type of person."

Just four years after Mitt lost that race, Ann was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She talks openly about the debilitating disease, and the story about how she first learned the news became a campaign trail standard in the 2008 primary, which those close to her refer to as the “bag of rocks” speech because of its theme of how everyone experiences hardship.

“She was very incapacitated," says recent California gubernatorial candidate and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who has been friends with the Romneys since she went to work for him in 1980. "There were times it was very hard for her to walk, it was hard for her to get from the bedroom to the bathroom. And she just said, ‘You know what? I’m going to do the very best I can to beat this.’”

“She does it better than he does,” says one political expert, referring to campaigning.

Ann turned to riding horses to alleviate the pain, and friends say it has helped tremendously. Today, she displays no symptoms of the disease that she was once nearly crippled by.

Because of this, after the 2008 campaign, whenever close aides were asked whether Romney would run for president again, the answer was usually the same: “If Ann is healthy.”

Members of the inner circle agree that Romney wouldn’t attempt another run if Ann's health wasn't completely under control, especially in light of the lumpectomy she got last year after being diagnosed with non-invasive early-stage breast cancer. "There are almost no long-term side effects,” says their 41-year-old son, Tagg, and her MS “has been under control for the last number of years.” Friends and former staffers almost immediately point to her “strength,” many saying she is one of the strongest people they know.

But even with an encouraging diagnosis, Ann's fervent desire for her husband—and indeed, the whole family—to dive back into a grueling presidential campaign is fairly remarkable. During his media blitz to promote the paperback release of his political manifesto No Apology, the former Massachusetts governor told CNN’s Piers Morgan that it was his wife who wanted him to run in 2012, but that he still hadn’t made up his mind.

Why would someone in Ann's position want to plunge back into such a marathon? Political science professor at the University of Massachusetts and Bay State political expert Maurice Cunningham says Ann has “grown into the role” of being an effective political wife.

“Anyone in the position of being a political wife, a key surrogate, is going to learn the first time they run it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s hard to do and you learn from hard things. I think she’s more relaxed now, she has experience now,” says Cunningham. “She seems to want to do it. A lot of political spouses don’t really want to do it, but she seems to really be on board with this.”

And her participation is key. Ann is a big factor in humanizing her husband, a man who is often described as “too perfect." And it's clear that Mitt is happier out on the stump when she's by his side. Tagg says that she “helps him relax and unwind and not stress.”

Cunningham pointed to a joke both of the Romneys constantly repeated on the 2008 campaign trail when Romney said that he asked his wife if in her “wildest dreams” she would ever have thought he would be running for president. Her response: “Mitt, you weren’t in my wildest dreams.” The line was a little bit corny, but the crowds just ate it up.

“She does it better than he does,” says Cunningham, referring to campaigning. “It was very engaging and anything she can do to soften him is going to help because he is a little bit of the man on the wedding cake.”

Mitt Romney and Ann Davies started dating when she was 15. He was 17 and the son of then-Governor of Michigan, George Romney. They stayed together when he went away to Stanford University for a year, and then to France to do his Mormon mission. Ann grew close with the Romney family, especially George. She would go to their house for dinner while Mitt was away. “George adored my mother," Tagg says. "He thought she was very pretty and he was hoping my dad would marry her. So he kept an eye on her and held her close to the family.” She went with the Romneys to pick up Mitt when he arrived from France, but Tagg says that at that point “she was part of the family already.” She converted to Mormonism when she was 18 and they married two years later. A close friend describes their lifelong romance: “From the time he met her he has never held another woman’s hand. It’s how they are like newlyweds today.” The young couple moved from Michigan to Massachusetts for Romney to attend a dual program at Harvard Law and Business Schools, and it was there they raised their five boys in the Boston suburb of Belmont.

Tagg says his mom was “tough, she was a disciplinarian.” But there was one rule that was strictly enforced by dad. “We all knew from a very early age that you can get away with all sorts of stuff, but showing disrespect to mom was not an option.”

As Ann raised what Tagg calls “five unruly boys who she had to keep in line,” Mitt was working at the management consulting firm Bain & Company and then the spin-off private equity firm Bain Capital. He had to travel around the country to try and revive struggling companies and see clients, but he still would try to make it home each night to see his wife. “I know when he could, he would get home at night and see Ann and the kids and turn around and go right back down the next day if that was possible,” says Whitman.

Today, Ann feels free to tell staffers when she needs rest or can’t keep up with the particularly hectic schedule Romney maintains when he's campaigning. But the pace she keeps is impressive. Whitman points to a visit she took to the Romney's New Hampshire home when she was running for governor of California. She described the house as full of grandchildren running around their grandmother, yet lunch appeared beautifully prepared on the table, thanks to Ann.

Tagg describes his mom as a “good sounding board” for his father, and although they may not spend much time discussing the intricacies of foreign policy or budgetary minutiae, he tells her everything.

Last time when Romney was deciding whether to run, he gathered his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law together for a vote on whether he should go for it. I ask Tagg if his dad had already done that again in anticipation of the 2012 race. He says yes, he had, and everyone decided, “He ought to do what he thought he should do, and we would support him in whatever decision he made.”

How did Tagg and Ann vote? “My mom and I are the most vocal he should run,” says Tagg.

Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.