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Ann Romney: an enigmatic first lady-in-waiting (+video)

Ann Romney can seem at turns warmly gracious and wholly out of touch. But she's tough – a steel forged by her deep love for her family and her husband – and that should be on full display Tuesday night as she addresses the Republican National Convention.

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When their church would ask for volunteers to help students or families with a move, “We’d show up, and there would be Mitt and Ann and the five boys with their pickup truck,” Wheelwright recalls. “They really believed in service and in teaching it to their boys.”

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Ann was briefly involved in civic life as well, running for and winning a seat on the Belmont town meeting representative in 1977 – long before her husband ever entered politics – though she served just a year.

“Mitt and Ann were very quietly gracious in the town of Belmont,” says Maryann Scali, who also served as a town meeting representative with Romney, though she says she knew her better from the League of Women Voters – where Ann twice offered up her home for fundraisers – and tennis, where Ann was competitive, but gracious.

In the presidential campaign, Mrs. Romney has had a more public persona, embracing her role as a mother and grandmother of 18, touting her faith in her husband’s ability to save the economy, and discussing her health battles with MS and breast cancer, and the role horseback riding has played in her recovery.

But she hasn’t always been an asset.

In Mr. Romney's first foray into public life – his failed 1994 Massachusetts Senate campaign against Ted Kennedy – Romney allowed herself to be profiled in a Boston Globe story that was disastrous.

She came across as naïve, privileged, and out of touch with average Americans – especially when she decried the financial hardship of early years with Mr. Romney, when they were both students living in a $62-a-month basement apartment with a cement floor and “we had no income except the stock we were chipping away at.”

She also told the reporter that the couple had never had a serious argument, as long as they’d known each other. Columnists at the time referred to her as a “Stepford wife.”

At the end of the campaign, after her husband had lost, Romney told another Globe reporter that “you couldn’t pay me to do this again.”

Still, by her own account, Romney was the member of the family most enthusiastic about her husband launching a second bid for the presidency this time around. She was also the one who encouraged him to step in to help the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics – ensuring that he kept a high profile – back in 1999, even though it was soon after her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

She was diagnosed in 1998, after a year of health difficulties, and has spoken poignantly about the difficult period that followed.

“My life is finished. My life is over,” she recalled thinking when she got the diagnosis, speaking to a crowd in South Carolina last winter. She has referred to it as her “darkest hour.”

She also credited Mr. Romney, and his steadfastness and support, with bringing her back from the brink of despair. (It was a side of Mitt that was emphasized often last December, putting his reaction to his wife’s illness – and their long, happy marriage – in sharp contrast with the personal life of Newt Gingrich.)

She received treatments for a while, which she credits with helping to stop the progression of the disease. But it was horseback riding that she says ultimately saved her.

She had loved horses as a girl, and began riding again in Salt Lake City. Initially, she could barely get on a horse, but dressage – which involves far more intricate control of a horse through leg movements than most horseback riding – eventually helped her both physically and emotionally.

"Riding exhilarated me; it gave me a joy and a purpose," she told the Chronicle of the Horse magazine in 2008. "When I was so fatigued that I couldn't move, the excitement of going to the barn and getting my foot in the stirrup would make me crawl out of bed."

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