Ann Romney takes on larger role in campaign; brings folksy touch

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his wife Ann serve pancakes during a Labor Day pancake breakfast, Monday, Sept. 5, 2011 in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Mitt Romney is not used to wearing an apron.

But the Republican presidential candidate was not alone in cooking attire one recent morning as hundreds of potential supporters lined up for free pancakes.

Ann Romney, his wife of 42 years, stood with him, spatula in hand, wearing the same white apron and the comfortable smile of a woman who spent countless mornings flipping flapjacks for five hungry sons.

Her presence on that day, like so many others during the long campaign, is an acknowledged blessing for a 2012 White House contender who struggles to shake a robotic image. Friends and foes alike say she makes him seem more genuine.

"Believe it or not, I served pancakes nearly every morning before the kids went to school," she told supporters that morning. "I miss having my boys at home. But I do love seeing how wonderful they are now as husbands and fathers. ... I am grateful because they had such an extraordinary example."

Ann Romney is the unassuming, not-so-secret weapon in Mitt Romney's political arsenal. Already she's a more active participant than she was during his 2008 presidential campaign. And, the Romney campaign says there will be an enhanced role for her beginning next month, with additional public appearances, media interviews and a willingness to discuss health problems and her family's rags-to-riches story.

The 62-year-old grandmother of 16 has dealt with multiple sclerosis and breast cancer.

Seemingly with no filter, she jokes about bathroom messes, cooking for a huge family and personal struggles with her husband's public life.

She reminds voters, in a most genuine way, that Mitt Romney is a father, a hand-holding husband, a high school sweetheart. He is noticeably more comfortable in her presence.

Mitt Romney often reflects on how they first crossed paths at a Michigan elementary school but didn't start dating until high school. He introduces his wife as his "sweetheart" and she introduces him as a family man and business leader. After the pancake breakfast, he didn't mention his own family's success story, depending instead on hers as he spoke to voters.

Her grandfather, the son of a coal miner from Wales, couldn't afford to send all four children to college. The children were forced to pick just one who would receive an education, Mitt Romney said. They settled on Ann's father, who would earn his diploma and later open a steel company that would employ his siblings.

Ann planned to share her story in a book during the 2008 campaign, but her son Tag Romney says those plans were postponed.

Political assets aside, her mere presence seems to help relax her husband. They are not shy about public affection, and he regularly squeezes his wife's hand, even when the cameras are not rolling.

"He is confident, comfortable and very effective when she is by his side or with him on a trip -- the value of which cannot be understated in dealing with the pressure of a national campaign," said Jamie Burnett, who led Romney's political operation in New Hampshire four years ago.