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Romney's key ingredient

Ann Romney's personal touch has become an integral part of her husband's campaign.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO, Times Staff Writer
Published November 21, 2007

Ann Romney, wife of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, shares her cooking skills with supporters Tuesday morning in St. Petersburg during a campaign stop. Such solo stops have become more common for Mrs. Romney.
[Scott Keeler | Times]
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has been married to Ann Romney nearly 40 years.
[AP photo]

ST. PETERSBURG - Ann Romney has never given a political speech while cooking before, but she's clearly a natural in the kitchen.

While chatting about her "monkey bread" recipe, she never garbles a word, never says "ummm," never leaves an uncomfortable pause, all of which she does sometimes while making a political pitch for her husband, Mitt Romney, and his views on immigration or balancing budgets.

While talking politics, Ann Romney, 58, unconsciously starts stacking dirty dishes, even though it's a borrowed kitchen that will get cleaned long after she drives off to fly home to Boston.

"Who cares about politics, I'm going to talk about rolls," said the mother of five boys, the kind of mother who owns her own wheat grinder to make whole-wheat bread. (An 11th grandchild is scheduled to be born today in San Diego. She'll meet the baby Dec. 3.)

Ann Romney's visit with 30 women in St. Petersburg's Old Northeast neighborhood on Tuesday capped off a four-day tour of Florida, campaigning on her husband's behalf. Such solo trips are becoming more common for Mrs. Romney.

In a campaign where candidate spouses have to compete with the likes of former President Bill Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards, Ann Romney is becoming a name in her own right. In her home state of Michigan, she draws big crowds. She has her own campaign Web site, which includes recipes, family stories and details about her struggle with multiple sclerosis, a chronic, incurable disease that attacks the nervous system. She has a book on the way called Faith in the Family.

And she's an integral part of her husband's campaign.

Ann Romney may be his best defense against Republicans who attack Mitt Romney's conservative credentials, his convenient conversions on core conservative social issues such as abortion rights and gay rights.

Evangelical Christians, in particular, look at committed marriage as a factor when weighing their vote, said John Stemberger, leader of the Florida Family Policy Council. The question is whether that will be enough to persuade people to overlook Romney's political past.

"Romney's long-standing commitment to his wife and family are definitely a strength that is unique in the top tier candidates," Stemberger said. "But I think it won't be the central issue on voters' minds."

Earlier this year, Ann Romney had been known to joke publicly about how the only one-wife Republican running for president was the Morman. That was before former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who also has a longtime marriage, emerged as a dark horse contender.

But the rest of the big names - Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain, former Sen. Fred Thompson - have all been divorced. It's a fact that Republican women notice.

"Mitt Romney doesn't just talk about family values, he practices what he preaches," said Diane Martin-Johnson, 57, a Plant City Romney supporter. "It's pretty basic, but it tells you a lot about somebody - if you can provide a stable and safe home and keep a family together."

The other way Ann Romney helps Mitt Romney's campaign is that she brings a dose of reality to their otherwise near-perfect image. While they seem to have it all -millions of dollars from Romney's successful businesses, five married sons with grandchildren, a storybook relationship - her struggles with multiple sclerosis show that life isn't always easy.

"Her struggles help humanize the candidate, the man who may seem distant or extraordinarily wealthy or extraordinarily handsome," said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway of the Polling Company. "She says, 'I love him and so you can too.'"

On her Web site, Ann Romney compares her disease to another "rock" to carry in her bag.

Romney was diagnosed in 1998 and deteriorated quickly, losing feeling in the left side of her body. Doctors treated her with steroids, which helped, but left her exhausted and weak. Despite her illness, she moved with her husband to Salt Lake City, where he took over administration of the troubled Winter Olympics. It took her years to regain her energy.

Ann Romney told the St. Petersburg crowd the story of how Mitt Romney had chosen heroes to run the Olympic torch across America. She was his hero and got to carry the torch.

"That was an amazing personal accomplishment for me, because I would have been barely able to walk when we first got to Utah," Ann Romney explained. "And three years later, with my husband beside me and my children running next to me and with all of my new friends cheering me on, and not a dry eye, they all ran next to me recognizing what an accomplishment and personal battle I had fought and won."

Between every campaign trip, she must try to rid herself of stress, or risk another flare-up. She does this mostly by riding horses and relaxing with her family. When asked how she manages such a chaotic schedule, she talks of her husband.

"We don't understand how he does it," she said, "his days are twice as long as mine, twice as intense."

Her torch-running story led to tissues and smeared mascara from several women, including Karen Erickson, 63, whose brother also has multiple sclerosis.

"She's so grounded, so wholesome, and the family values she lives and passes on is what we need in a big way," said Erickson, an undecided Republican who is now leaning toward Mitt Romney.

Tonia Fuller, 32, a stay-at-home mom raising three young children in St. Petersburg, said she liked how Ann Romney "is so real."

"I just really think that she could be someone who could be a friend of mine," Fuller said. "The kind of person you could go visit without having to worry about putting on your makeup."


Monkey Bread packs dry yeast dissolved in 1 cup warm water

2/3 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

6 cups flour

1 stick butter

1 cup boiling water

2 eggs, well beaten

Mix butter, sugar, boiling water and salt. Cool slightly and add yeast to mixture. Add eggs and flour. Dough will be sticky. Let rise, punch down. Roll to 1 1/2 inch thick. Place in greased pan. Bake at 350 degrees until golden.

[Last modified November 20, 2007, 23:45:20]

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