ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL — The Democratic National Committee is fond of making the case that there are two versions of Mitt Romney. The two take different positions on issues, the DNC contends, depending on the day.
I think there are two versions of Ann Romney.
News profile piece after piece paints Ann Romney as a political partner who is contributing a great deal to her husband’s campaign. They say she acts as a Mitt-stabilizer — earning her nickname “Serenity” among the press corps — and has, in the words of the Boston Globe, “latched on to her surrogacy role with zeal, providing potent testimony to her husband’s character.”
Coverage casts her as bubbling, humanizing, and charming. Journalists and pundits regularly note her standard stump speech about raising five boys, and how when her husband decided he wanted to run again, she asked if he could save the country. The stories, aside for commenting on a few fashion faux pas, are glowing.
I had a different experience.
At a rally in South Carolina, I found Ann Romney over-rehearsed and inauthentic.
She was introduced by her high school sweetheart and husband, and she took the stage in a teal blue three-quarter length jacket with bows as closures, black capris, and brown suede pumps. Her stump speech had all the usual touch points, but hit all the wrong notes.
She looked out across the packed gymnasium, and made her standard comments about how it was difficult to raise her 5 boys. She said the children at the rally seemed better behaved than her sons. Suddenly, a baby cried from across the room. Ann quickly pointed at the child and said, “My kids were like that.”
There were a few tentative laughs, but every parent in the room felt it: that mother with the baby was mortified. I don’t have children and I was mortified for her.
The missed marks continued.
What was once crafted as a well-oiled machine of witty banter with Mitt was now reduced to a flat and stilted round of staged choreography. There were awkward pauses between them. At one point, Mitt finished a line, paused, and then cast a glance at Ann, and she spoke sounding almost startled. She missed her cue.
I wondered if that night was a fluke. Perhaps a symptom of campaign fatigue. Or could it be that the previous articles about her were wrong? I wanted another look.
Saturday night, at Mitt Romney’s victory party after the Republican caucuses in Nevada, the woman I had read about — but had not witnessed — took the stage.
She was poised. She was energetic. She was the perfect political wife.
Flanked by her children and grandchildren, in a black suit and pink top with an elaborate neck flourish, her spirited hand gestures punctuated her key points. She spoke with conviction and humor. When she scolded the crowd and told them to obey her this time and hold applause till the end, the crowd laughed and cheered.
This was not the same woman I saw in Irmo, South Carolina, roughly two weeks ago. This was not the wife of a candidate coming in second, but the wife of a man who just captured Nevada Republicans. And it showed.
She introduced her husband, and he bounded on stage smiling and hugging his family. The two of them looked completely at ease — both safely back in a comfort zone of family and frontrunner status.
In the end, I concluded that there are two Ann Romneys. But not in the cynical way that people see Mitt Romney as two-faced.
The campaign trail is grueling — for everyone involved. Political partners don’t have to stand centerstage and take the punches directly. But they do have to stand to the side and watch the ones they love absorb each blow.
Perhaps in Irmo the political punches finally got to her, and she showed us another side of herself. She may be the perfect political wife, but even perfect political wives are human.