Mitt Romney listens to his wife, Ann, during a campaign stop in Keene, N.H. (Matthew Cavanaugh, Associated…)
Reporting from Lancaster, N.H. — It was a simple errand, a husband buying a Christmas gift for his wife. But in this case it was Mitt Romney buying for Ann Romney, the woman he introduces alternately as "my bride," "my sweetheart" and occasionally "the boss."
And with 13 days before the first votes are cast — with thousands of voters to win over — the former governor brought more than a dozen reporters, cameramen and photographers along for the holiday excursion.
Taking his wife of 42 years by the hand, the former Massachusetts governor led the way Thursday around the outdoor outfitter Simon the Tanner: "Ann, keep your eyes open here."
They reminisced about the best Christmas gifts he's given her — a horse, which he called "the gift that keeps on giving" — and the worst.
"For the first, I don't know, 10 years of our marriage, I would buy her clothing of various kinds," the candidate told reporters at the store, "and she would say, 'Ohhhhh, this is so nice,' and then it was gone a week later."
The candidate suggested presents along the shelves without much success. Finally, Ann Romney tried on a sleek white ski jacket and modeled it for her husband as he looked on approvingly.
"Christmas accomplished," he beamed. After picking up the $300 tab, which included socks for his eldest granddaughter, he joked to his wife that she was lucky he hadn't picked out her gift at the next stop, an Agway farm store.
The starry-eyed courtship of Ann and Mitt Romney has been on display for much of this campaign, as it was in his first presidential run in 2008. He charms audiences by recounting how he fell in love with her when she was 15 and how he proposed on the way home from the airport after his 2 1/2-year Mormon mission in France.
Many of the other candidates' spouses are fixtures on the campaign trail, and some, like Anita Perry, hold their own public events. But few have public schedules as busy as Ann Romney's.
She melts crowds with her stories of how her husband comforted her in her "hardest hour," when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (telling her he didn't care if they ate cold cereal every night for the rest of their lives); and how he used to call home during his business trips when she was a young mother of five sons to say, "Remember, Ann, what you are doing is more important than what I am doing."
He teases her publicly about her "fiscal discipline." She corrects him aloud when he misspeaks at his events. They hold hands. They exchange tender glances. The chemistry between them is unmistakable.
But the Romney campaign has never turned the spotlight quite so brightly on the couple's marriage as in the last few weeks while he has been pitted against the thrice-married Newt Gingrich, who as House speaker advocated for the impeachment of President Clinton while having an affair with a younger congressional aide who is now his wife.
As Gingrich rose in the polls in recent weeks, the Romney campaign released an ad that featured glowing close-ups of Ann and a clip from a debate where Romney cited his marriage as evidence that he was a man of steadiness and constancy.
The campaign released a new spot this week in which Ann Romney suggests that voters should be able to tell whether a potential president will do "the right thing" by looking "at how they've lived their life."
"That's why it is so important to understand the character of a person," she narrates. "To me that makes a huge difference."
Romney rejected the notion that the ad implicitly referred to Gingrich, telling reporters Wednesday that character was simply an important part of leadership and that when his campaign ran ads focusing on his family, "We got more support from voters."
"We talk a lot about policy and that's appropriate," Romney said when asked about the ad in Lancaster. But during campaigns, he said, "people don't get to know the candidates terribly well on a personal basis, and we're finding that as we run ads that talk about our personal background, our personal beliefs — that's building support for my campaign. So this is about us getting our message to the American people; it's not about contrasting with anybody else."
But these days, the contrast is clearly on the minds of Republican voters in the early states, who increasingly cite Gingrich's past marital troubles as a strike against him as the potential Republican nominee.
Many of those voters insist that a candidate's marriage shouldn't be anyone's business — particularly in New Hampshire, where privacy is paramount. But they often go on to acknowledge that Gingrich's complicated history could hinder Republicans' chances of beating President Obama.
The theme has salience for voters like Jean Johnson, 86, who met Romney for the second time Thursday at the farm and hardware store in her hometown of Lancaster. She cupped his hands in hers to tell him he had her vote.
"We study the people, and being in the North Country we have such an opportunity to see and hear them," Johnson of the candidates.
She said that she had looked at Gingrich — "but I couldn't vote for him, let's put it that way."
"He's got too much baggage," she added. "I'm not saying he wouldn't do a good job, but I wouldn't pick him over Romney.
"I look at it this way: If you can't work at a marriage and make that work, how can you make the government work?"