With presidential campaign rhetoric almost exclusively concerned at the moment with issues of character — as corruption, secrecy, and honesty become major themes in both sides' talking points — the Romney campaign could begin using the candidate's sympathetic wife as a shield.
In an interview with BuzzFeed about the Obama campaign's recent assault on Romney's personal finances, a Romney adviser repeatedly brought up Ann Romney's name unprompted, arguing that the attacks were aimed at her as well.
"I think when they refer to Mitt, suggesting there was something illegal or untoward about how they managed their financial affairs, they're talking about Ann by extension, because she signed those tax returns." the adviser said. The insinuation of Ann Romney's culpability, he argued, is one reason the campaign believes that Romney partisans are not the only ones who will see Obama's attacks as underhanded. "It's not just right-wing Republicans — I'm talking about business leaders, officials in the [George] H.W. [Bush] administration, who are frankly shocked by what [Obama's campaign] is saying."
The adviser added, "Nobody's perfect, but there's a level of decency that shines through with Gov. Romney and Ann and the family that no one can deny."
Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said the notion that his organization was targeting Romney's wife as "flatly false."
"The president has been clear that families are off limits," LaBolt said. "We have always respected that and always will."
It's easy to see why Republicans would want to invoke Mrs. Romney as her husband gets pounded. She is often viewed as the campaign's strongest asset — a sympathetic mother figure, cancer survivor, and graceful stumper whose authenticity contrasts to her stiffer husband.
The last time she became central to the campaign conversation — when a Democratic strategist mused that the stay-at-home mom had "never worked a day in her life" — Republicans immediately put the Obama campaign on defense and used the ensuing "mommy wars" to help improve her husband's image with women. And polls back up the idea that Ann Romney is popular — at least among those who know she is. Twenty-seven percent of independents give her a "favorable" rating against an "unfavorable" number of only 15% — but the rest say they don't know her well enough to form an opinion.
Democrats scoff at the premise that she's implicated in calls for her husband to release his tax returns. But they also appear to realize the danger in that perception taking root. Last week, the DNC released a web video featuring a dancing dressage horse — like the one Mrs. Romney takes care of — but then apologized for the perception that they were making fun of the candidate's wife.
Republican strategist Rick Wilson called the video and other alleged examples of the Obama campaign's poor treatment of Mrs. Romney "amateurish class-warfare trash talk" and "a good illustration of how desperately weak [Obama's] hand is." Added Wilson: "The proof of her goodness is in that amazing family. Attack a mom and grandmother at your peril."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
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