Every campaign has a storyline, a theme - one written by the candidate’s spinners, another by the opposition’s trimmers and one, usually the accurate one, hidden in plain sight. Mitt Romney’s pushing the storyline of his successful business experience. But his strength against Newt Gingrich, still his chief rival despite Rick Santorum’s burst of speed in this week’s beauty-contest caucuses and primary, is the authenticity of family values.
Callista Gingrich, pale and pretty in 1950s retro, has been compared to Pat Nixon in a plastic, Stepford-wife stance next to her man, a stoic in a sculpted metallic helmet hairdo. Ann Romney, by contrast, looks comfortable as the earthy, robust, naturally fashionable mother-grandmother figure who could grace the cover of a magazine devoted to glam grandmothers. She expresses a depth drawn from her experience guiding five sons to maturity and connecting now with her 16 grandchildren.
Many conservatives in their early flirtation with Mr. Gingrich overlooked the appeal of the candidate who actually lives by the family values they say they admire. Even in an expectedly unflattering portrait of Mr. Romney in Vanity Fair, he stands out as a family man combining the best of his Mormon teachings as they apply to his marriage and his children. He looks as if he believes the teaching of his church that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home.”
His wife Ann tells how Mitt would call home from road and, hearing distress and frustration in her voice, tell her: “Just remember, your job is more important than mine.” His wife and sons show no signs of walking the walk with a wink and a nudge as we see so many politicians do.
The closely knit family, however, poses problems for Mitt the politician, who doesn’t display spontaneous warmth outside the circle of family and close friends, who lacks the easy authenticity we expect from candidates. If he shows too much public pride in his faith, the source of his family values, he risks irritating the evangelical Christians, who have strong theological differences with Mormonism. But his reticence suggests a coldness that others interpret as lacking warmth and connection. He can be engaging, even warm, in small groups of people he knows, but his habitual self-discipline in an age that doesn’t appreciate discipline doesn’t translate well. One critic accused him of “having had his sweat glands removed.” Faking warmth and practicing spontaneity is not easy. Only the best politicians can do it and make it look authentic.
But women as well as men may be beginning to see the family-man appeal. The man married to the same woman for 42 years beat the man married three times by 22 percentage points among women in Florida, prevailing across every category of education and income. Healthy after tough battles with multiple sclerosis and breast cancer, Ann Romney is speaking up more to tell their story. Not known for her feminism, she nevertheless was the first wife to be included in the official Massachusetts State House gubernatorial portrait, reflective of their separate contributions and strengths. No doubt she looks forward to sharing a family portrait in the White House.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.