LITTLETON, Colo. -- Ann Romney is taking this personally.
The would-be first lady delivered a passionate endorsement of her husband's character and political vision in this Denver suburb on Tuesday, on the eve of the first debate between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. In her latest solo event, Romney said the former governor of Massachusetts is the right man to "save this country" -- whatever negative charges opponents throw at him.
"I can't wait for the contrast that we're going to hear tomorrow," said Ann Romney, referring to the first debate as she spoke before a "Women for Mitt" sign, flanked by several of her grandchildren.
It took all of a few seconds for her to shift into a message about Mitt Romney's personal mettle: "I'm grateful that we had the convention and that there were people that stood up and said, 'I am sick and tired of hearing about Mitt being mischaracterized, I'm going to stand up and I'm going to tell you about the person I know.'"
Ann Romney's pride in her husband, with more than a hint of indignation at the course of the 2012 election, has been on vivid display in her recent speeches and television interviews. She appears determined to convince the country that Mitt Romney is not the indifferent businessman the Obama campaign says he is, but a generous family man who cares about the American people.
Softening Romney's image -- especially among women -- remains an urgent challenge for his campaign. The GOP nominee heads into the final month of the 2012 race hobbled by a daunting gender gap, trailing among women by 12 points in the latest POLITICO/GW Battleground Poll. Romney continues to battle fallout from a leaked video showing him disparaging the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay income taxes.
In her latest campaign swing, Ann Romney has seemed to walk -- and sometimes cross -- the line between sticking up strongly for her man and lashing out at his critics. During a late September visit to Iowa, she grabbed national headlines by telling conservative critics of Mitt Romney to "stop it."
"This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring," she told Radio Iowa, declaring: "It is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt's qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country."
That caustic tone is the exception, rather than the rule, at Ann Romney's events. But the emotional, defensive register of her comments is no aberration. Much as she did in her speech to the Tampa convention in August, Romney plays the role of a character witness for a husband she plainly views as the victim of a smear campaign.
Some of the voters appreciated that fighting spirit Tuesday. Barbara Karford, a senior citizen from Littleton in the crowd, applauded Romney in these terms: "I definitely think that she's a woman that supports her husband in every way."
"She's just like us," Karford said. "She has a beautiful family and she's a beautiful grandmother."
Nationally, it's unclear how effectively Romney is bolstering the message of a campaign seeking to move out of a monthlong slump.
Noelia Rodriguez, the former press secretary to first lady Laura Bush, said it's natural for the spouse of a candidate to be "defensive because she loves him, which is understandable," as long as that doesn't undercut her ability to connect with voters on their own terms.
"It's one thing for [Ann Romney] to humanize him, but they have to connect with Americans by showing that they've seen the human side of those voters," Rodriguez said. "Nobody wants to hear about 'poor me' or 'poor Mitt.' They want to hear about what you and your husband are going to do once you get to the White House."
Explained Rodriguez: "It's not the public's view that they should be lucky that [Mitt Romney] is running. It's what's in it for them and why should they vote for your husband?"
At least some of Romney's events appear aimed at answering those questions, particularly for women voters. In Milwaukee, Romney appeared with female alumni of her husband's gubernatorial administration and called him a friend to women. In Henderson, Nev., yesterday, Romney campaigned with Pam Finlayson -- the woman who told the Tampa convention in August about how Mitt Romney helped her family through their daughter's premature birth. This afternoon, she recounted the wrenching story of the Oparowski family, who spoke at the Republican National Convention about Mitt Romney's relationship with their late son.
In a sense, this has been Ann Romney's role since the outset of the election cycle, when she told an audience at the Romney campaign's New Hampshire launch about how her husband supported her through fights with breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. At an event in Reno last week, Romney leaned hard into the message that "this man cares," according to The Associated Press, telling the crowd not to believe that he is "above it all or doesn't care or can't relate, all of those things."
If there is occasionally a hard edge to her remarks, campaign advisers say that's just an illustration of how intensely committed she is to the cause.
"When you see a reaction where she sort of defends the governor, I think that's also something that people respond pretty well to," adviser Kevin Madden told reporters on the campaign plane Monday, arguing that voters "recognize that she cares greatly about him and she knows that he cares greatly about the country and really feels strongly about the reasons why he's running."
Sarah Haley, the spokeswoman for Romney, called the candidate's wife a unique surrogate who can "talk about her husband and give examples of [her] husband's character and leadership in a way no one else can."
"We are in the final weeks of the campaign in a critical election so all of us are working hard and doing what we can to get the message out to the voters that Gov. Romney is the right man at the right hour," Haley said.
Whether the Michigan native's prodigious campaign efforts have had any impact on the election is hard to say. Romney generally rates well in polls but is hardly a political force of nature: a USA Today poll released before her GOP convention speech found that 42 percent of Americans viewed her favorably while 24 percent viewed her unfavorably.
At times, her fierce, emotional message struck an off-key note. Speaking to Nevada's KTVN station last week, Romney said her greatest concern about her husband as president would be his "mental well-being" and "the emotional part" of the job.
It was a ham-fisted comment that she later clarified to a Las Vegas Fox affiliate: "He's perfectly capable of doing it, but we always worry about the pressure of the job."
Last spring, when Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen criticized her for not having a professional career, Romney welcomed the controversy perhaps a little too openly by calling the media firestorm an "early birthday gift" at a closed-door fundraiser where her comments were overheard.
Still, there's little question that the swing-state crowds who see her up close respond enthusiastically
"She just seems very down to earth," said Sharon Johnson of Denver. "I don't think it hurts that she helps bring out his human side. Some people think he's too staid."
The warm reception is not just a Colorado phenomenon. Pinellas, Fla., County Commissioner Nancy Bostock, who saw Romney at a recent Sunshine State campaign event, recalled that people were "so excited just to stand in line and be greeted by her at the end."
"She really talked about her husband in different terms than you usually hear in the political world," Bostock said. "It was very much a personal look at the man and I think it really resonated than the crowd."
As for Romney's pushback against the attacks on her husband, Bostock said: "I read it more as maybe an acceptance of the process and that's sometimes how it goes with the political process and the media, but this is the real person."
"Maybe that's defensive, but it didn't strike me as negative at all," she said. "I know for my family and for the local officials I know here, that's certainly the case, it's always harder on the spouses."
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