Republican frontrunner's spouse is trying to persuade cash-strapped Americans that she feels their pain

Barack Obama is offering dinner with George Clooney at the actor's palatial Los Angeles home as first prize in a raffle to boost his presidential campaign coffers.

Mitt Romney had much the same idea. But the lucky winner in his raffle gets "a bite" with the presumptive Republican candidate's wife.

Ann Romney - of Welsh stock and Mormon by conversion to her husband's faith - has been assigned the challenging task of getting the voters to see beyond Mitt's stiff and sometimes testy demeanour, and to put aside the fact that as a man born to great wealth he's nothing like the average American.

Her campaign is focused on women voters in particular, as support among them for Obama far outpaces Romney and has only grown with the uproar over Republican attacks on access to contraception and abortion. But then Ann Romney, 63, turned a widely scorned criticism of her for not having held a paid job to her advantage.


Mitt Romney has all but sewn up the Republican nomination, as Newt Gingrich followed Rick Santorum in dropping out of the presidential race. With the focus now on fighting Obama, Ann Romney's role is growing ever more prominent.

Polls show she is far more popular than her husband, although they also say Michelle Obama has a more favourable rating than the woman who would replace her as First Lady.

Romney gets his wife on stage at almost every opportunity. He calls her "my sweetheart" in public and often holds her hand.

She is there in part to counter the Obama camp's attempts to portray her husband as an elitist multi-millionaire out of touch with the realities of a depression-era US who really represents only his wealthy friends.

It's an easy pitch for the Democrats when Romney reveals he has paid tax on his multimillion-dollar income at a rate far less then the average worker and responds to a question about whether he follows Nascar car racing by saying not really, but that he has some great friends who are team owners.

A firestorm of criticism after a Democratic pundit, Hilary Rosen, said Ann Romney had "never worked a day in her life" because of her husband's wealth set up the Republican candidate's wife to strike back. She tweeted: "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work."

The Democrats quickly distanced themselves from Rosen, worried she would be seen to be demeaning women who stay at home to raise children. She had to apologise.

Ann Romney picked up on that theme in a speech in Connecticut, painting herself as an ordinary mum raising five boys, doing the shopping, cooking and cleaning. "I know what it's like to get up in the middle of the night when they're sick, and I know what it's like to struggle and to have those concerns that all mothers have," she said, to standing ovations.

She portrayed Mitt as a loving, understanding husband, who reminded her "all the time that my job was more important than his".

She's also spoken about how her "extraordinary husband" stood by her side as she has lived with multiple sclerosis and battled breast cancer.

But Ann Romney gave the game away - that hers is no ordinary family with a net worth of about US$220 million ($272 million) and several houses - when she began talking about working mothers.

"Thank goodness that we value those people too. And sometimes life isn't easy for any of us," she said.

She also struck the wrong note when she tried to suggest she understood the problems of financially strapped families by saying she and her husband had had to sell some of their stocks to get by in college.

The Rosen controversy may ultimately have served the Democrats by once again reminding voters that a month earlier Ann Romney tried to say her husband's incredible wealth was of no consequence.

"How I measure riches is by the friends I have and the loved ones that I have and the people that I care about in my life," she said.

In fact, Ann Romney has spent her marriage cocooned in a wealthy, white world as a dedicated member of a church with a long history of racism and misogyny.

Critics noted she spoke about herself as if she were speaking for all women, but it only went to highlight how different her experience as a wife and mother is from those families grappling with recession, unemployment, foreclosure and insufficient funds to pay for healthcare when her husband is campaigning to cut services for the poor.

At other times she has struck a note of entitlement, and an "us and them" mentality.

"I believe it's Mitt's time. I believe the country needs the kind of leadership he's going to offer ... So I think it's our turn now," she said in a television interview this month.

Ann Romney is not new to electioneering, although she has no love for campaigning. "Four years ago I said I would never do this again."

She was among the most visible of the Republican presidential contenders' wives during the 2008 campaign. But she is, if anything, playing an even more prominent role now.

It wasn't always this way. During her first campaign, when Mitt was running against Ted Kennedy for a seat in the senate in 1994, she was derided as "superficial, pampered and too deferential" to her husband, according to the New York Times.

Political pundits reckoned she did him more harm than good that time.

There's not much evidence that wives affect voting behaviour - except perhaps Gingrich's, who was a constant reminder of his infidelities and serial marriages. Ann Romney's emphasis on her 42-year marriage offers a telling contrast, even if many voters worried about such thing are doubtful that the Romneys' Mormon faith is Christian.

Mitt Romney has long recognised his wife's political usefulness. She was the first spouse to be included in an official portrait of the governor of Massachusetts. Yet her past holds some snags for more conservative voters.

He is having to explain away his support as governor for compulsory health insurance, which he says he vehemently opposed in Obama's reform law. The President is going to hit him on that, as well as on his previous support for abortion and gun control.

Ann Romney may come under scrutiny over a US$150 donation she made to Planned Parenthood nearly two decades ago. Her husband says he will cut off all government funds to the group because among its many services to women it offers abortions.

His wife has also been left to defend a notorious incident during a family holiday long ago, when Mitt strapped their dog to the roof of the car for a 12-hour drive to Canada. She said the animal "loved it".

- Observer