First lady Michelle Obama has become a fierce campaigner in her husband’s re-election bid, regularly striking out on her own to defend him and urge voters to give him another four years to complete their agenda.
Ann Romney has played a more low-key — though possibly more important — role by highlighting the softer side of her husband, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Together, the two women are playing the kinds of campaign roles pioneered by then-first lady Laura Bush in 2004, who earned the label of George W. Bush’s “secret weapon” for her ability to charm crowds and deflect attacks on her husband.
“The first lady, though she is a member of a political party, if you will, is not perceived as a partisan figure,” said Myra Gutin, a first lady historian and professor of communication at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. “From everything I’ve read and seen, Michelle Obama hasn’t taken any swipes at Mitt Romney.”
Indeed, the Obama campaign has chiefly used Mrs. Obama to rally Democratic base voters and to push others to get out and vote.
At a recent campaign stop in Broward County in Florida — a toss-up state that Mr. Obama won in 2008 — the first lady closed by delivering a pitch for early voting.
“Because if you vote early, number one, you get it out of the way,” she said. “So if you wake up on Election Day and you’re sick, the car broke down, there’s no baby-sitter, somebody is throwing up, wake up with an ear infection — this is that time of year. Your kids wake up, it’s like, oh Lord, your ear hurts — just take an Anacin. Just get to school, whatever you do. We mothers understand that.”
Mrs. Obama’s signature issue, her “Let’s Move” campaign to reduce childhood obesity, has drawn both more support — including corporate backing — and more ridicule than causes adopted by other first ladies in recent times.
“Every first lady is more popular than her husband, but maybe not as well known,” Ms. Gutin said. “Michelle Obama [is] more well known. And I think because of her project, she’s been out more.”
‘Romney’s secret weapon’
Mrs. Romney, while not campaigning as often as Mrs. Obama, has effectively played the role of disarming charmer and has provided a window into the private life of her husband that few have seen.
Mrs. Romney, who overcame breast cancer and has multiple sclerosis, said at the Republican National Convention in August her marriage to Mr. Romney was not a “storybook marriage,” but a “real marriage.”
“I know this good and decent man for what he is,” she said. “No one will work harder. No one will care more. And no one will move heaven and earth like Mitt Romney to make this country a better place to live.”
Noelle Nikpour, a GOP fundraiser who worked on former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign, said Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Bush were “two peas in a pod.”
“I think she is Mitt Romney’s secret weapon,” Ms. Nikpour said. “He was at a disconnect with the American people, and Ann Romney was the glue. I think Michelle has been a good first lady — I just think that if you have looked at who has helped a candidate the most, it’s Ann Romney.”
One connection with Mrs. Bush that Mrs. Romney shares is a similar exchange that both would just as soon forget.
(Corrected paragraph:) In 2004, Teresa Heinz-Kerry, the wife of then-presidential candidate John F. Kerry, said that Mrs. Bush — despite years of teaching, working as a librarian and raising two daughters — “never had a real job.” This year, it was Democratic pundit Hilary Rosen who said that Mrs. Romney, a mother who raised five boys, had “never worked a day in her life.”
While Mrs. Bush turned the other cheek, Mrs. Romney’s initial response — incidentally, her first-ever tweet — was civil but a bit more confrontational.
“I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys,” she wrote. “Believe me, it was hard work.”
Ms. Gutin said Mrs. Romney has acquitted herself very well as a campaigner and, while she doesn’t yet have Mrs. Obama’s sense of comfort with crowds, she would with time.
(Corrected paragraph:) “I think it helped her that [Mr. Romney] ran four years ago,” she said. “I think the Hilary Rosen observation really kicked her into action.”