By Michelle Bearden | The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA -- Ann Romney used her time in the national spotlight to make a prime-time case for her husband.
But amid the mostly enthusiastic reviews for her Tuesday speech before a packed crowd at the Forum and a far-reaching broadcast audience, something else happened: The world got a revealing look at the woman who could end up as the next first lady in the White House.
"I felt really, really good about it," said a relaxed Romney on Wednesday, showing no signs of a wear-and-tear schedule that kept her on the move, beginning with a morning ribbon-cutting at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. "I wanted to speak to women's hearts, because women hear differently than men. They don't know what to believe anymore, so I wanted them to believe me."
In an interview with The Tampa Tribune at the Marriott Waterside, Romney showed that she is every bit as warm and gracious in person as she was on stage. And up close? No way does the 63-year-old grandmother of 18 look her age.
"Part of that is taking a holistic approach to my health," she says. "It also means knowing when to pull back. I learned long ago that my schedule can't be Mitt's schedule."
Mitt, of course, is her husband of 43 years and the father of their five grown boys. He's also the man she believes should be the next president of the United States because, "He will wake up every day with the determination to solve the problems that others say can't be solved."
One problem that he can't solve is her multiple sclerosis, diagnosed 14 years ago after she began experiencing extreme fatigue and balance issues. The degenerative autoimmune disease, for which there is treatment but no cure, requires her to take medication, get rest and avoid stress.
On a presidential campaign trail that is growing decidedly more negative as the weeks progress, how is that possible?
"There are girls' trips, and boys' trips," she laughs. "We hop in and meld with the boys for about three days max. Then we're finished and head back home before things get too hectic. People should expect they're only going to be seeing me intermittently."
But when she is on the trail, expect a fully engaged campaigner. She's come a long way since her oft-reported public declaration in 1994 that "you couldn't pay me to do this again," after her husband's losing bid for the Senate.
She nodded, remembering that pledge, but says she's a different person today.
"I know what a personal assault it is for my family to go through this. I've made up my mind to not let it bother me, that it's really not personal. This is just something that happens when you get involved in the fame. The stakes are so high and it becomes nasty."
Besides spending time with family, the outlet that brings the most joy to this avid equestrian is her horses. She says that riding – and, specifically, dressage, a sport where horses prance and pirouette topped by riders in fancy attire -- counters the physical effects of her MS. But more than that, "they are magic," she says of her horses. "They lift my spirits in ways you can't imagine. I'm missing them terribly these days, because I'm not getting to ride as much."
And in the spirit of the late Jacqueline Kennedy, who retreated from the public glare to ride her steeds in the Virginia countryside, Romney says if she ends up at the White House, "So will my horses, without question. They are an integral part of my life."
Just as she's become her husband's defender, Romney knows she will have to keep educating Americans about her Mormon faith. Raised an Episcopalian in suburban Detroit, she converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a few years after meeting her future husband at a high-school dance.
As with the attacks on her husband, she's learned not to be overly sensitive about the insults against her religion, which has been parodied on Broadway and questioned by some religious leaders.
What she would like people to know about Mormons is that "We love this country, we love God, we believe in Jesus Christ, we're committed to making people's lives better – and we're committed to living a better life ourselves."