Ann Romney, Mitt's not-so-secret weapon
Washington - She's a stay-at-home mom and privileged wife, but Ann Romney has stepped dramatically into the spotlight to defend the roles of women in America, proving she may be husband Mitt's most potent weapon in his fight for the White House.
Whether it's warmly reassuring mothers with a hug on the campaign trail, or giving a "shout out" to stay-at-home dads, as she did on Thursday in the midst of a prickly row that is dominating the presidential race, Ann Romney is emerging as a down-to-earth partner to the Republican flagbearer.
"My career choice was to be a mother," Ann Romney explained on Fox News on Thursday, after being sideswiped by a Democratic strategist who said the wife of a multi-millionaire former venture capitalist and mother of five had "never worked a day in her life".
"I think all of us need to know that we need to respect choices that women make," Romney said.
And with that, she turned a mushrooming gender row on its ear - the first real sparks of the campaign now that Mitt Romney is the all-but-certain challenger to President Barack Obama in November.
And she also sent a signal that she'll play a key role in drawing women voters, most of whom now favour Obama, to her husband.
Following Romney on the campaign trail for a few days only confirms his reputation as slightly wooden - so it's a good thing his wife is there to humanise him, if only a little.
The 62-year-old Ann, who regularly appears on the podium with her husband and their five smartly-dressed sons, often steals some of the limelight with her personal stories and sharp wit.
When her husband introduced her to supporters in Youngstown, Ohio last month as "the heavyweight champion of my life", she rolled with it.
"Things are getting a little tight," the fabulous-looking leading lady joked as she pulled on the buttons of her suit.
A few weeks later, as the Romneys claimed victory in Michigan and she introduced her husband on stage, she turned serious; saying the economic hardships across the state "has broken my heart". "We have had it," she steamed about conditions in her native Michigan.
"Washington, here we come! We are going to take back America, and we're going to let this guy do it," she said to a roar.
Their visibly squeaky-clean and loving family life - which the Mormon businessman-turned-politician's camp liked to contrast earlier this year with the three marriages of Republican rival Newt Gingrich - is a clear vote-winner.
They routinely call each other "sweetie" and hold each other's hands, and he regularly refers to her as "the boss".
"You can see she keeps him grounded," said Greg Hampton at a Romney rally in Colorado in February.
But while the 65-year-old former Massachusetts governor is a contender for the most important job in the world, it has not always been so rosy.
His wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1998, and although she brought it under control with a combination of orthodox medical treatment and other means - including horse riding - she has also more recently battled breast cancer.
"She credits her husband's unwavering care and devotion to her for helping her through these ordeals," Romney's campaign website says.
The couple met in elementary school, when Mitt "remembers tossing pebbles at her when she rode by on a horse. When they met again years later at a friend's house, he was smitten", it says.
They both went to Brigham Young University in Utah, and she converted to his faith as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. She later completed her studies at Harvard after they had children.
Ann Davies and Mitt Romney married in 1969 after he returned from two years' missionary work in France, and as well as five sons have 16 grandchildren, "who are the centre of their lives." They have been married 43 years.
That may seem a politically rose-tinted account, but over the course of two relentless White House primary campaigns, no one has found any significant dirt on them.
Her campaigning has not been perfect, notably when she said last month that "I don't even consider myself wealthy".
So what of the future? Romney told Fox she would be a busy first lady, "compassionate for those that are suffering and also help to try to find a cure for MS and for breast cancer".
She may not be a top-flight attorney like Michelle Obama, but Romney claims his wife is "a real champion and a fighter".
And Ann Romney used the gender row as an opportunity to send her first-ever Twitter message on Wednesday.
"I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work," she tweeted. By the next day, she had amassed more than 27 100 followers.