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Long before Congressman Paul Ryan joined the ticket, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney got a big assist from another running mate, his wife Ann. Throughout the Republican primaries, no candidate's spouse was more visible on the stump. Her role was also something of a surprise. Mrs. Romney overcame serious illness and a distaste for politicking to campaign for her husband.

In our series Parallel Lives, comparing Mitt Romney and President Obama, we focus now on their wives.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports now on Mrs. Romney, the kind of partner she's been and the first lady she'd like to be.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: If you want to see how much Mitt and Ann Romney consider themselves a team, check out his official portrait at the Massachusetts Statehouse. He's the first governor to request that his wife be included beside him. He's posing beside a framed picture of her.

By all accounts, the Romneys consult each other on everything. So after a bruising campaign in 2008, it looked like that might be it for Mitt.

ANN ROMNEY: I said, I am never doing this again.

SMITH: As resolute as Ann Romney was then, she was equally firm, just two years later, that her husband simply had to run again.

ROMNEY: That means you jump off the cliff again. There're not many people that can save this country and turn it around. It needs a turnaround.

MARGARET WHEELWRIGHT: She told me, she says, you know, I just felt when I was praying one night that, you know what, he could make a difference,

SMITH: Margaret Wheelwright became close friends with Mrs. Romney in the early 1970s at church,

WHEELWRIGHT: She encouraged him because of how she felt after she prayed. And she felt like that the Lord said, you know what, you stick behind him because he can do it.

ROMNEY: Thank you, Puerto Rico.

(APPLAUSE)

SMITH: Today, Mrs. Romney has gone from a Massachusetts first lady most voters wouldn't recognize to practically a co-candidate.

ROMNEY: I love Michigan. I love Michigan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We love you.

(APPLAUSE)

JOE MALONE: I think of Ann Romney as the fire in the fire-and-ice relationship between her and Mitt.

SMITH: Former Massachusetts state treasurer Joe Malone, a Republican, has known Ann Romney since 1994, when her husband first ran for U.S. Senate.

MALONE: She has gone from the wife who was happy to be supportive of the husband and just keep him company in the car, to an opinionated woman who's highly valued, and then, on top of that, someone who's a very effective communicator for the campaign.

ROMNEY: We are going to take back America and we're going to let this guy do it.

(APPLAUSE)

SMITH: Dynamic, down-to-earth and poised, Mrs. Romney rarely stumbles now as she did years ago, for example, when she said she and her husband were so poor as students, they had to sell some of their stocks, or that they'd never had a fight since they married. Now savvier and more experienced, she's showing voters a warmer, less wooden Romney and making the case, as she did on CBS, that the real Mitt is not so stiff either.

ROMNEY: There's a wild and crazy man inside of there.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, we see the wild and crazy. Then watch out.

SMITH: Politics is not new to her. Ann Davies' father was a mayor in Michigan and she and Mitt Romney were together when his father was governor of Michigan and running for president. In the 1970s, Ann Romney herself won election to Town Meeting. But her real focus has been raising her five sons.

ROMNEY: My career choice was to be a mother, and I think...

SMITH: Speaking on Fox News after she was dissed by a Democrat for not working a day in her life, Mrs. Romney said both she and her husband believed her work at home to be most important.

ROMNEY: He would come home and say, Ann, my job is temporary. Your job is a forever job that's going to bring forever happiness.

SMITH: Mrs. Romney was a hands-on mom, barely hiring nannies or domestic help, according to her friend Margaret Wheelwright.

WHEELWRIGHT: Both felt so strongly that, we don't have someone in there cleaning their bedrooms and doing the dishes for them because that's what they should do.

SMITH: Romney did volunteer work in the community and for her church, for example, teaching an early morning seminary for high school kids.

WHEELWRIGHT: She taught the Old Testament and then the New Testament, and then the Book of Mormon. And those kids, every morning at 6:15, were there for 45 minutes. And the kids loved her.

SMITH: Ann Romney herself was brought up with little organized religion by her Welsh immigrant father and her mother, whose family goes back to the Mayflower. She started learning about Mormonism in high school, while dating Mitt Romney, and decided to convert. She was tutored her and baptized by Governor George Romney while Mitt was doing missionary work in France. And she married Mitt shortly after he returned.

R.B. SCOTT: And her mom and dad are not happy about this at all.

SMITH: R.B. Scott is a Romney biographer and distant cousin. He says Ann Romney may be traditional, but she's always been willing to buck convention and her parents. For example, when her mom - a fervent believer in zero population growth - objected to the Romneys' ever-growing family.

SCOTT: Her mom began to complain about, you've drunk the Kool-Aid and the Mormon Kool-Aid, you're having a big family and you're destroying the Earth. And Ann apparently said, OK, Mom, you know, I want to maintain a relationship with you, but if this continues we're not going to have a relationship.

WHEELWRIGHT: When she decides something, I don't think anything stops her.

SMITH: Friend Margaret Wheelwright says it's also how Mrs. Romney approached the biggest challenge she's faced, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998.

ROMNEY: I can't stand to even be reminded of how sick I was...

SMITH: Mrs. Romney talks about it openly now, for example, describing on ABC what she called the dark hole she was in.

ROMNEY: So, it wasn't just feeling sick. It's the unknown of where is this taking me and how long is this going to go on. And...

SMITH: Eventually, through the help of some alternative therapies, Mrs. Romney beat her MS into remission and built herself back up to the point where she became a champion equestrian. Mrs. Romney says dressage, a kind of horse ballet saved her life. Democrats point to the arcane sport, where riders in top hats prance and pirouette on horseback, as more proof that Mrs. Romney is elitist and out of touch.

But as she did on Fox News, Mrs. Romney dismisses the idea that she can't relate.

ROMNEY: Look, maybe I haven't struggled as much financially as some people have. I can tell you and promise you that I've had struggles in my life. And Mitt and I have compassion for people that are struggling.

SMITH: Mrs. Romney says her priorities as first lady would be to help find a cure for MS and breast cancer, which she also survived. And she says she'd continue her work with at-risk children and against teen pregnancy.

But friend, Margaret Wheelwright says she can't imagine Mrs. Romney trying to get mixed up in policy.

WHEELWRIGHT: She would certainly be willing to share any of her feelings if Mitt asked her. But she's a smart lady. She knows her place.

SMITH: That is, as a trusted adviser, on everything from strategy to selecting a vice president and, as she's called herself, a Mitt stabilizer. As Romney told CNN's Piers Morgan, he's way better when she's with him.

MITT ROMNEY: If I'm away from Ann for longer than a week or so, I get off course. She has to bring me back and moderate me down a bit.

SCOTT: There is this connection between the two that is intense, and she provides the anchor and the confidence that he needs.

SMITH: Again, Romney biographer R.B. Scott.

SCOTT: If you watch him when he goes into a room, he's always looking around to see where Ann is. Where's Ann?

ROMNEY: My sweetheart, Ann Romney.

SMITH: Given where she's come from...

(APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: Wow, this is fabulous.

SMITH: Mrs. Romney calls it nothing less than a miracle to be standing on a stage supporting her high school sweetheart, who she hopes will also be the next president.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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