PENSACOLA -- Four years ago, Ann Romney swore she’d never do this again. No more campaigns, she told her husband when he stepped off the stage after conceding the Republican presidential nomination to John McCain.
But time to heal and an opening for Mitt Romney to seize the presidency this fall has her back on the campaign trail. Enthusiastically, she says.
“The reason I changed my mind is I recognized that the country needed my husband,” Romney, 63, told the Herald/Times as she campaigned recently in Pensacola. “And it wasn’t obviously a convenient thing to think about or even a pleasant thing to think about, but it was an absolute necessity that we do it.”
Her three-city swing through Florida last month — one of several expected between now and November — was packed with symbolism and strategy.
She had conversations with Republican women at a family owned restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood then gave a speech sitting atop a horse at an equine therapy stable in Ocala.
In Pensacola, she toured a breast cancer treatment facility where she spoke to women as life-saving chemicals pulsed through their veins.
Romney may have been reluctant at first, but she knows how important she is to the campaign.
In her own words, it is her job to “unzip” Mitt.
Like her husband, Romney spends her days criss-crossing the nation. Florida, a toss-up state with 29 electoral votes, is expected to be a frequent stop.
Yes, she talks about how her husband can best turn around the struggling American economy. But she spends as much or more time discussing her family, and her personal story.
It can be compelling.
When a Democratic pundit said Romney “never worked a day in her life” because she was a wealthy stay-at-home mother of five, Romney responded in a post —her first — on Twitter.
“I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work,” she wrote.
The simple exchange knocked Democrats off message for days and forced President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama into the awkward position of defending Romney.
Romney also has survived two health scares. In 1998, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an incurable nervous disorder. In 2008, she had a pre-cancerous lump removed from her breast.
In Ocala, at the Marion Therapeutic Riding Association, she talked about how riding horses helped her deal with her multiple sclerosis.
“They were therapeutic for her, they gave her hope that she could get better,” said her son, Josh Romney.
And in Pensacola, Romney toured the Woodlands Center for Specialized Medicine, where she lingered in the infusion room chatting with women as they received intravenous chemotherapy.
“She’s very warm,” Woodlands chief executive officer Linda D’Amore said. “The patients just glowed talking to her.”
The connection is authentic, said Fran Hancock, a Republican state committeewoman from North Palm Beach.
“She seems very comfortable with a microphone,” Hancock said. “And, on the other hand, she also seems down-to-earth when she’s doing it. It’s not like she’s up there speaking.”
At Mitt’s side
Romney was a 15-year-old high school sophomore when she attracted the attention of Mitt, a senior at the time. They married 43 years ago, and Mitt still talks fondly about the night he fell in love after giving her a ride home from a party.
“I kissed her at the door, and I’ve been following her ever since,” he said once. “She’s a remarkable woman, and she’s gone through some tough times.”
Both were raised by affluent families, but Mitt also amassed his own wealth.
Ann took care of the boys. Josh, the middle son, said his mother was always there when he and his brothers got home from school. She was the “fun-loving one, while my dad was more the disciplinarian,” he said.
Sometimes the Romneys go as long as a week without seeing each other. They keep up with each other via email and phone calls.
Romney isn’t the go-to person for campaign strategy or policy decisions. But when Mitt wants an honest opinion or perspective on a sensitive topic, he calls his wife. She said she never wants him to feel alone in this endeavor.
“I feel like my role really is to be able to give him just comfort in going through this very difficult process that we’re going through,” she said, “and knowing that I’m standing by his side, that I trust him, that I’m rooting for him, that I’m with him.”
She is the only wife depicted among the portraits of Massachusetts’ former governors. In the painting of Mitt, he is leaning on a desk with a photo of Ann and a copy of his signature health care reform legislation by his side.
When the Republican presidential candidates debated in Jacksonville in January, State Sen. John Thrasher sat next to Ann. During each commercial break, she left her seat to check on Mitt, who met her at the edge of the stage, Thrasher said.
“He would look for her,” said Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican who has known the Romneys for years. “That one little thing there gave me a signal of how close they are and how much respect they have for each other.”
Pull no punches
Romney said she wants people to know her husband is compassionate, competent and the right person to lead the nation. That is why she changed her mind about allowing him to run for office one last time, he son said.
“It was that question on the economy,” her son, Josh, said. “She asked him, ’Will you turn the economy around?’ And he said, ’yes.’”
So what does Romney want people to know about her? “That I am pretty direct and pretty honest and I don’t pull any punches,” she said.
If she becomes the first lady, Romney says she will continue to be an advocate for people diagnosed with breast cancer or multiple sclerosis. But she also wants to lend a voice to people who are struggling in other ways, such as at-risk youth.
Thrasher said Ann would be an involved first lady, taking on meaningful projects and being especially attentive to young people.
“I think she’d be an activist,” he said. “I think she’d be very, very involved in children and families. To me, that’s her strength.”
Herald/Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.