Aug. 14, 2008 — -- Ann Romney is an athlete, a fierce competitor and an avid horseback rider. She is also a woman from a highly privileged background who has nonetheless overcome significant challenges.
Her current undertaking? Supporting husband Mitt Romney's quest for the presidency.
A stay-at-home mom, Romney raised the family's five boys while her husband pursued his career, first in business and then as governor of Massachusetts. In the past, she has been viewed as a reluctant campaigner who is not especially fond of the spotlight.
At times, she has been portrayed as a Stepford Wife, and at other times as brainless. Romney takes those comments in stride. "Those things are offensive … and you just recognize that's part of what happens in campaigns."
On a recent campaign tour across South Carolina, Romney traveled with her daughter-in-law Mary and her young grandson Parker, who is always a crowd pleaser.
At every stop, Romney makes sure the message is less about policy and more about family. "It's been a long and wonderful 38 years of marriage and … raising those boys," she told one South Carolina crowd. "Not always easy to raise five boys. Challenging, but great rewards."
Romney's children have since grown up, but when they were young the challenges she speaks of were ever present. As a young businessman, Mitt Romney often traveled, leaving behind his wife and children.
"He would call home and he would hear the wails and the screams, and he would hear the harried wife on the phone," Romney recalled. "You know how exasperated you can be when you're the mother of five young boys," she said, laughing.
Throughout her speech, Romney's comments on motherhood and family elicited plenty of smiles, laughs and even the occasional aww.
Romney wants voters to look at her family, at what it represents.
"I think people will sometimes be critical and say, 'You look too perfect' or 'The family looks too perfect.' And you know, we all have struggles," she said. "It may look perfect, but that's one thing I have learned about life is that it isn't always what it looks."
However flawless they may seem, Romney said her family has seen its share of battles. This is a lesson she learned in 1998, when at 49 years old she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
"My husband was with me, and when the doctor left, tears came, because we realized this was something serious," she said. After the tears came the depression, an unfortunate symptom of MS.
"I did not handle this well. And I felt very sorry for myself," she said. "I was depressed. I just thought life was over. I even said things like, 'I wish I could just die.'"
For a while, Romney was barely able to walk, but slowly, through a combination of traditional medicine and alternative therapies including reflexology and yoga, she began to regain her strength. It wasn't a cure, but it was progress.
"And then there were the horses," she said, "and that to me was the biggest magic of all."
Romney decided that she would master the extraordinarily difficult and expensive sport of dressage, described by some as ballet on horseback. At 50 years old, with MS, she started to train.
"I was really surprised," she said. "As soon as I got on, I completely forgot I was even sick or tired or -- that fatigue feeling -- I just was so filled with joy that it just was like a magic pill for me."
Last year, after eight years of hard work, Romney won the gold medal in a national competition. "It was my miracle," she said. "It may not be someone else's. No one else may see it as a miracle, but it was my miracle."
Although Romney is able ride horses, she is still ill. What toll the campaign would have on her health factored heavily in the couple's decision as to whether or not her husband was going to run for president.
"That was a risk that we had to weigh," she said. "And at the point … it was literally up to me. Mitt's like, 'I won't do this. Nothing matters to me except making sure you're well.' And I'm like, 'I'm going.'"
Strangely enough, another candidate and his family had to make the same decision this year, when John Edward's wife, Elizabeth, found out her cancer had returned.
"Elizabeth and I have talked, and I think we share the same understanding that what our husbands are doing is critically important," Romney said. "And I know she believes, and I believe, too, that my husband is the right person for the job. And we are willing to put ourselves out there for that."
If you're surprised that the wife of a Republican candidate for president is singing the praises of a Democratic candidate's wife, Romney said her illness has taught her a lot.
Even though Romney is often successful in steering the conversation away from politics, many have criticized her and her husband for their apparent shift on issues like abortion.
"He has definitely evolved his opinion," said Romney of her husband's view.
And perhaps her views have evolved as well. In 1994, Romney donated $150 to Planned Parenthood, a check she said she didn't remember writing.
"These things become … part of a campaign, which is … so ridiculous, because it doesn't define me. It's not who I am. I wouldn't have done it today."
One position that is not up for change is the Romney's religion. They are Mormons, and that poses a problem for some voters. In recent polls, three out of 10 Republicans said they would not vote for a Mormon, any Mormon, for president.
"As he said, he's not running for theologian in chief. He's running for commander in chief," Romney said. "And I think it's just unfamiliarity, and it's not maybe that they're bigoted, it's just that they're unfamiliar."
Romney said that while she doesn't understand the constant scrutiny of her faith, she understands that running for office is a sacrifice.
She also maintains a sense of humor about the whole process, specifically when it comes to what to do with her horses should her husband get elected.
"You know something, that is my only next concern," she laughed. "Where will I put those horses? Will they be on the front lawn?"