Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, will attempt to show her husband's… (Gerald Herbert, Associated…)
TAMPA, FLA. — In 2008, after her husband withdrew from the grueling race for the GOP presidential nomination, Ann Romney made a personal campaign promise: "I am never going to do this again."
"You know what, Ann?" replied Mitt Romney, father of her five sons. "You said that after every pregnancy."
Telling that favorite family story to a jovial hometown crowd in Michigan last February, Ann delivered the punch line: "I guess I didn't really mean it."
When she takes the stage Tuesday at the Republican National Convention, Ann Romney's task will be to show the warmer side of a man who is often described as plastic and remote. The nastiness of the campaign will temporarily recede as the woman who has been married to Mitt Romney for 43 years, who knew him in elementary school and fell in love with him as a teenager, will tell the country about his softer side.
She might talk about how, when she was frazzled from staying home with five boys, he would assure her that his work as a businessman was fleeting but hers as a mother was forever. Or how he was at her side when the terrible weakness she felt at age 49 -- so bad she could not summon the energy to open an envelope -- turned out to be multiple sclerosis. And how, when the fatigue robbed her of the ability to cook, he held her and said he didn't care; they could eat cold cereal for the rest of their lives.
"I wish everyone could see him how I see him ... how compassionate he's been with me," Ann Romney told Chris Wallace on Sunday in a Fox News interview that took place in their vacation home on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee.
As she softens her husband's sharp edges, it's clear that Ann Romney has toughened up.
For if there is anything that tests the mettle of a political spouse, it is the brutality of the presidential campaign trail. Just ask Michelle Obama -- pilloried for claiming in 2008 to be proud of her country for the first time. Or Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who dared to say in 1992 that she chose to work rather than stay home and bake cookies.
Ann Romney, 63, has been accused of animal cruelty, of leading a pampered, privileged life that renders her unable to understand the struggles of ordinary Americans. She has been criticized for wearing an expensive blouse, for driving two Cadillacs, for taking a tax loss on her Olympics dressage horse, for transporting an Irish setter in a crate on top of the family car. ("That's been, by the way, the hardest thing so far on the campaign trail for me," she told ABC News in 2007 during her husband's first presidential campaign. "People thinking that ... we're cruel, I mean, to animals.")
Her frustration was evident in 2010, as she and her husband deliberated another run. "There were times when I wanted to like come out of my seat and clock somebody," she told "Fox and Friends." "I mean, sometimes you just want to come out and just go at them, you know?"
But this time, Romney has learned to channel that anger and fight back like a pro.
In April, after Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen sniffed that Romney had never worked a day in her life, Romney launched a Twitter feed. Her first tweet: "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work."
Later, she was overheard by NBC and Wall Street Journal reporters telling supporters at a private fundraiser: "It was my early birthday present for someone to be critical of me as a mother. That was a really defining moment, and I loved it."
She has waded with gusto into the controversy over the couple's decision to release only two years' worth of tax returns. In July, she told ABC News, "We've given all people need to know and understand about our financial situation and about how we live our life."
Romney campaign officials refused a request for an interview with Ann Romney.
But Susan Duprey, a prominent New Hampshire Republican who works with Ann Romney as a senior advisor and "body woman," says Romney has become philosophical about criticism.
"When you have been through this once before, you have a much better understanding of what you are walking into," said Duprey, who makes sure that Romney carves out walking time and gets her preferred non-fatty proteins and vegetables for meals. "It's frustrating and she might want to throw something at the TV, but she does understand this is part of the gantlet that you have to go through in order to be president."
Josh Romney has observed the change in his mother too.
"I think she's more comfortable talking to the media, less concerned about how she's portrayed," their middle son said during a phone interview. "And just more comfortable speaking for my dad. Because of that, she's gotten a lot more attention this time around."
That attention has included moving stories about her health crises -- how riding horses helped her regain her zest for life after her MS diagnosis and the recent disclosure that when she was in her early 40s, she suffered the miscarriage of her sixth child about 41/2 months into the pregnancy.