Ann Romney swore her first campaign would be her last.
The candidate's wife hit bottom in the waning days of her husband's 1994 Senate bid, having fought and fumbled her way through the Massachusetts slugfest with notable clumsiness and unease. Her one moment in the spotlight had produced a disastrous interview, turning her into a magnet for mockery by the state's pundits. Later, Ted Kennedy's aides would gleefully boast to the Boston Herald that it was Ann — that gaffe-prone, unrelatable picture of privilege — who had derailed her husband's campaign, and secured their boss's re-election.
Riding to a rally in Quincy, Mass. a few days before election day — the race all but called, and her husband asleep beside her — Mrs. Romney was asked if she foresaw more politics in their future.
"Never," she responded, according to the Boston Globe. "You couldn't pay me to do this again."
Eighteen years later, Ann Romney is not only doing this again, she has become an unquestionable campaign star: a dynamic speaker, graceful mommy warrior, and ceaselessly sympathetic figure whom the campaign is counting on to sell her husband's presidential candidacy to women voters. Her persona today is so far distant from the caricature that emerged in 1994 that it's easy to forget that her political poise was hard-earned.
But her evolution as a political spouse has been a rocky one, a range of people close to the three past Romney campaigns said — a journey marked at its start by high-profile fumbles, ruined friendships, and an escalating "disdain" for the press.
"Whatever skills she has as a campaigner have developed over time, but the bottom line is she's a mom, not a political person," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior campaign adviser who's worked with the Romneys for the past decade. "She's devoted to her husband and family."
That family-first mentality may have been what led her to keep such a low profile through most of her husband's first campaign. Mitt Romney, a phenom in the insular world of private equity, had made his millions in relative obscurity as Ann raised their five boys in the tony Boston suburb of Belmont. When Mitt made the decision to throw his hat in the ring, she still had two teenage boys at home, and those who knew Mrs. Romney at the time said parenting remained her top priority.
Laura Raposa, a gossip columnist for the Boston Herald, recalled her first meeting with the Romneys in the early days of the election.
"We met for lunch at the Four Seasons, which I'm sure Mitt didn't like very much because it was so expensive, and we had a great time," she told BuzzFeed. "[Mrs. Romney] was so engaging...You'd ask her about her kids, and her face would light up."
She also became something a mother figure to the campaign's staff and volunteers.
"Food was her big thing," recalled an adviser to the 1994 campaign. "She would have snacks for us everywhere we went... She was also very instrumental in organizing volunteers. She would put out the word to her network in the Belmont area... A lot of my interns were BYU kids, Mormon students, and they were, like, just the best kids."
Raposa, the gossip columnist, got the sense that Mrs. Romney was still cautiously dipping her toe into the choppy waters of public life, unsure of whether she was ready to be submerged.
In befriending Raposa and her Herald colleague, the candidate's wife dabbled in the indulgences of local celebrity, offering her sons up as "dates" for the columnists to take to a glitzy Boston Magazine event. She would later tell a local radio station that the highlight of the campaign for her was reading about her "hunky" boys — the Herald's word, not hers — strutting their stuff in Beantown’s elite media circles.
But for all her backstage charm and flirtation with the spotlight, Mrs. Romney remained largely unknown to the Massachusetts public — until October. With polls showing Romney in a dead heat with Kennedy, she accepted a standing interview request from the Boston Globe's Jack Thomas. The campaign was reluctant to push her to the front, said one senior adviser, but she insisted.
"I was just very nervous about that, especially with that reporter," said the adviser. "I kept saying to her, 'Everything is on the record here, he's going to try to seduce you into saying stuff.' And she just said, 'I'm fine with that.'"
The campaign's concerns turned out to be more than warranted.
When the 4,000-word feature was published in the Globe under the headline, "Ann Romney's Sweetheart Deal," it was full of ammunition for the Kennedy machine. The article showed her fretting about her figure — "I'm thin, but not 117 pounds, so I'm not as thin as I should be" — and recalling "living on the edge" as a married college couple, getting by on nothing but their American Motors stock. In perhaps the most damaging revelation, Ann confided that, in 25 years of marriage, she and Mitt had never had an argument.
"Isn't that strange?" she asked the reporter innocently. "It's like people might think there's something wrong with our relationship."
The pundits pounced. One columnist referred to the Romneys as the "wax couple," while local radio hosts sneered at their too-perfect marriage. As is often the case in Boston, the Globe got the goods, but the Herald made the point with its blunt, memorable headline: "Daughter of Privilege Knows Little of Real World."
The adviser to the 1994 campaign told BuzzFeed Mrs. Romney wasn't entirely to blame for the mess, claiming she was duped by an exceptionally manipulative reporter who had promised a sympathetic puff profile.
"He was, like, crying with her when she talked about losing both parents to cancer in a year," the adviser recalled. "Oh, it was pathetic... But you can make anyone sound like a murderer with these interviews if you want to."
To this day, some Massachusetts conservatives believe that Thomas, the author of the devastating profile, was being coached by his Democratic strategist wife. (Thomas did not respond to requests for comment). In any case, the story dealt a major blow to the campaign, and helped draw a caricature that would follow Ann Romney’s husband for the next two decades: That of the out-of-touch Ken doll with no grasp of life outside the Barbie Dream House.
The campaign had been taking fire from the Boston Globe throughout the race, from exposes of the candidate's years at Bain Capitol, to investigations into his service as a local Mormon Bishop. But for Mrs. Romney, sources said, this perceived betrayal cemented her mistrust for Boston's paper of record — one that would eventually grow into a deep-seated resentment for news media at large.
"She's disdainful of the media," said a Massachusetts Republican operative who has worked closely with the couple. "But the Romneys have never been fans of the Globe, in particular. You know, the Globe being a liberal newspaper, the Romneys really felt the brunt of it in 1994. Since then, they have always only just tolerated the media."
From Mrs. Romney's perspective, she had been personally betrayed by the Globe columnist, at a tremendous cost to her family.
"I think she learned a huge lesson from that," said the 1994 campaign aide. "I think sometimes that's a bitter pill to swallow when you learn stuff like that. But she became a much better subject after that because she got an education on how tough it is."
And the challenges to Ann Romney didn’t all come from Democrats and newspapers. Some of the most cutting criticism came from fellow churchgoers in Boston's small Latter-day Saint community.
Most notably, a liberal group called Mormons Against Romney formed to oppose their lay leader-turned-Senate-candidate, aggressively organizing against his campaign and leaking unflattering stories to local press, Mormon author Ron B. Scott wrote in his recent biography Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics.
According to Scott, Judith Dushku, a prominent feminist and leader of the anti-Romney group, publicly confronted Mrs. Romney — who attended the same Mormon ward as her — and shouted, "I know you, Ann Romney. What are you hiding? Speak to me!"
Fielding such harsh attacks from former friends was an experience that Mrs. Romney wouldn't soon forget, according to Scott:
The following Sunday [after the campaign ended], Judy Dushku remembered approaching Ann Romney at church, hoping to make peace and move on. “I cannot forgive what you did to us,” Mrs. Romney snapped protectively, rejecting Judy’s hand of fellowship. “Don’t you ever, ever talk to me again.”
The rift was so deep, Scott wrote, that when the Mormon wards were redrawn, local authorities made sure to separate the families, a move known as the "Dushku gerrymander."
"I think she was just exhausted by the end of it," said one campaign adviser. "You put your whole family through the ringer, and you just kind of think, 'Do I want to do this again?'"
Indeed, even as speculation mounted that Romney would take on John Kerry in 1996, those closest to Mrs. Romney wondered whether she would ever allow him to put her through another political campaign.
All that changed after the Salt Lake Olympics.
The Boston political press had been harsh and, in the Romney’s view, small-minded. In Salt Lake City, the couple got a taste of the other end of the media spectrum: The soft-focus, lionizing coverage of a great sporting event and the man who rescued it.
In perhaps the most effusive profile in a city where there were plenty of them, the widely circulated Mormon newspaper, Church News, summed up Romney's service to Utah like this:
Characterized by the media as the cavalry coming to the rescue, Brother Romney has created Olympic Games that are funded, where security is prepared and where Utahns are rapidly warming to the excitement of the Olympics.
They returned to Massachusetts as heroes, and their homecoming was covered by local press as the unofficial kickoff to the 2002 campaign. Supporters cheered the couple on as they deplaned from a private jet wearing Olympics jackets.
"There was all this glitz and glamor," recalled David Guarino, who covered the event for the Boston Herald and is now in public relations. “They just had this look in their eyes like, 'Here we go.'
“She seemed different, like she was much more prepared, much more equipped to handle it. I'd assumed it was the experience ins Salt Lake where she saw the benefits of being a public figure," he said.
Mrs. Romney may have regained her confidence. Her husband’s handlers, though, had little confidence in her. Despite reporters' impressions in off-the-record chitchat that Ann was ready for prime time, she kept her distance from the media, Guarino said.
"Part of it was her reluctance, having been burned in the '94 race," he said. "But part of it was the Romney team strategizing that they didn't really want her out there."
Indeed, one senior adviser to the 2002 gubernatorial campaign said many of the aides still remembered her tough interview with the Globe. They experimented with presenting her to the public in a more controlled environment — a campaign commercial titled, "Ann" — but the spot bombed and was quickly pulled from the airwaves.
"It proved to be a disaster because it reminded people of their original impression, that the Romneys are too perfect, too plastic, and too rich, really," he said. "I think that's what came out of the ad."
But her low-key presence on the campaign trail didn't make much difference. Rob Gray, a strategist who worked on the gubernatorial campaign, said there wasn't a strong expectation that she actively stump for her husband.
"In Massachusetts, there wasn't a history of strong first ladies, or a lot of campaigning by spouses," Gray said. "So it wasn't as much of an issue then."
Still, in the campaigning she did, Guarino said, there was a noticeable fervor that had been absent from her efforts in Mitt's last campaign — as though she was finally committed to the fight.
"In '02, I got the sense that she was enjoying it," Guarino said. "I don't think she liked some of the rough and tumble, but it was different from '94."
The difference, observers said, was that even though Mrs. Romney hadn't yet completed her transformation to political superstar, it was clear that she now had the desire to do so. And even as she spent much of her husband's governorship under the radar — with some friends and colleagues speculating that she was fighting health problems in those years — she now saw the worth of subjecting herself and her family to public scrutiny. There was an end game, one that took them to the White House.
By the time 2008 rolled around, Mitt was no longer dragging his wife into politics: Ann was now doing the pushing.
"She's the catalyst to all these forays into all these life-changing things," said the '94 campaign adviser. "Whether it was the olympics, or the presidential run, it's been Ann saying, 'Let's do it.' She is his number one sounding board, and he's always looked up to her amazingly."
In Mitt's first presidential bid, Mrs. Romney demonstrated notably sharper political skills — connecting with women by sensitively addressing her own health issues, and drawing plaudits from pundits for her authenticity. In a recent Wall Street Journal report, the dramatically heightened skills were attributed, in part, to her friendship with Elizabeth Edwards, a breast cancer sufferer who was married to Democratic candidate John Edwards. The Romney campaign denied Mrs. Romney was receiving political coaching from Mrs. Edwards.
But it wasn't really until this race — and, really, last week — that Mrs. Romney took center stage and managed to leave the audience of pundits and voters calling for an encore. There's every evidence that they'll get one.
Even as the mommy wars subside, campaign officials indicated that they will continue to lean on her to swell the ranks of women supporters.
"Not only does Mrs. Romney connect with people wherever she goes, but one of her greatest contributions is that she is able to show people a different side of Governor Romney that they may not see on the campaign trail," said Amanda Hennenberg, a campaign press secretary.
But not everyone is sold on Mrs. Romney's rebirth as a campaign dynamo. One strategist who worked on the 2002 gubernatorial campaign worried that Romney's team may become hypnotized by her winning streak, and forget her weaknesses.
"She's a really great person," said the strategist. [But] while they've had a good stretch, the danger for the Romney campaign in using Ann a lot is that she doesn't really relate to average voters well. She's lived a ritzy life full of nice cars, vacation homes, and hanging out with people who live that same upper class lifestyle, and that sometimes shows up in interviews. That could be very dangerous over the long term."
Mrs. Romney has already committed a couple minor gaffes under last week's klieg light glare. First, a hot mic caught her saying that Hilary Rosen's jab at her was a "gift" to the campaign. Then, asked by ABC's Diane Sawyer about the immortal tale of her husband strapping the family dog to the roof, she claimed he "loved it... he would see that crate and, you know, he would, like, go crazy because he was going with us on vacation."
But Mrs. Romney's popularity, and Democrats' fear of appearing to attack her again, protected her from criticism. Meanwhile, Mrs. Romney has shown no signs of letting her guard down against her most persistent foe: the press. Speaking at a women's luncheon earlier this year, she said it was "getting harder and harder to be cheerful," and joked, "I am so mad at the press [that] I could just strangle them! And, you know, I think I've decided there are going to be some people invited on the bus and some people just aren't going be invited on the bus."
As a former member of the strangle-worthy press covering Romney, Guarino said he laughed when he first heard those comments reported. And he took them as a sign that Mrs. Romney is embracing her new, public role.
"I wasn't surprised at all when I heard that," he said. "You could tell it was painful for her not to be out there defending Mitt for a while. She really relishes this chance to speak out."