By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ann Romney gets it.
She is aware that her husband, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, has an image problem. Critics say he often seems stiff and reserved on the campaign trail, and has difficulty connecting with voters.
That isn't a problem for Ann Romney.
She is warm, composed, approachable and careful with her words. The mother of five and grandmother of 16 also has become the behind-the-scenes glue in Mitt Romney's well-organized campaign -- a trusted adviser who keeps a close eye on the news coverage about him and casts him as a personable family man.
And as a worldwide television audience saw Tuesday night when she introduced Mitt Romney at a celebration of his victory in Michigan's Republican primary, Ann Romney knows how to work a room.
After thanking a long list of supporters, the Michigan native gave a brief but passionate speech in which she recalled meeting unemployed residents of the state during the campaign.
"What we have seen out there has broken my heart," she said. "I love Michigan. I love Michigan. I grew up drinking Vernors (a ginger soda made in Michigan) and listening to (Detroit) Tigers baseball. And what we saw when we went across Michigan were families that were hurting, people out of jobs. ... They're so concerned about their children ... because of the debt that we're going to give to our children.
"And, we have had it. Washington, here we come. We are going to take back America, and we're going to let this guy do it," she said, pointing to her husband.
At a time when Mitt Romney is leading the Republican pack but still struggling to energize many party voters, his wife's comments seemed particularly poignant.
A senior Romney adviser said the Romneys -- he's 64, she's 62 -- are as close in private as they seem in public, and they are good about bucking up each other's spirits when one is down.
"They are each other's most trusted adviser," the aide said. "Not on policy -- Mitt wouldn't say to Ann, 'What would you say about policy toward Israel?' But the they talk a lot to each other, on judgment things, people things."
'I'M SO MAD AT THE PRESS'
Like Democratic President Barack Obama's wife, Michelle, Ann Romney has long been the relate-to-the-people part of a political power couple whose male half has a reputation for being a bit aloof.
Ann Romney spends days at a time riding with her husband on his campaign bus, occasionally breaking off on her own to give stump speeches. That was the case Thursday when she met voters at a barbecue restaurant in Atlanta. Next week Georgia is one of the key states that will hold a nominating contest on so-called Super Tuesday.
She keeps up with her expansive family and the rigors of campaigning despite the effects of multiple sclerosis, which was diagnosed in 1998 and which aides say is technically in remission. She takes breaks from the campaign trail to rest and rides horses as therapy for the illness.
And, she keeps a close eye on the media's coverage of her husband's White House bid, much of which the Romney campaign considers too negative.
"I am so mad at the press, I could just strangle them!" she said laughingly during a Michigan campaign luncheon, National Review reported. "I think I've decided there are going to be some people invited on the (press) bus and some people just aren't going to be invited."
The remark was said in jest. No reporters have been bounced from the Romney campaign's press bus, which is separate from the bus in which Romney and his staff ride. Reporters rarely are invited there.
The Romneys have been married for 42 years. Mitt Romney opens most speeches by explaining how he and "my sweetheart," Ann, got together when she was 16 and he persuaded a friend to let him drive her home from a party.
"I'd seen the girl in elementary school, but she was in the second grade, I was in the fourth grade. So, I didn't pay a lot of attention at that point. But when she turned almost 16, I thought she was pretty interesting," Romney says.
In those moments when he talks about Ann, the former Massachusetts governor is the man she wants voters to see -- endearing, with a bit of a twinkle in his eye.
A POTENTIAL ASSET -- AND LIABILITY
Political strategists love the idea of a crowd-friendly spouse who can help humanize a political candidate. They also fear that a candidate's spouse can make things more difficult for a campaign by saying something careless.
Michelle Obama, for example, created a stir in 2008 when her husband's presidential campaign was going well, saying that "for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country."
"I think (political) wives can be an exceptional asset and a potential liability," said Susan Whitson, who was a press secretary to former first lady Laura Bush.
"You have to be careful because what you say under pressure can make news and sometimes can be negative. It's very difficult because you hear people say very negative things about your spouse, and that can be difficult to withstand day after day in a 24-hour news cycle."
In Mitt Romney's campaign, he, not Ann, has been the focus of a series of minor gaffes. In Detroit last week, for example, Romney -- who made a fortune as a private equity executive -- mentioned that his wife had "a couple of Cadillacs."
In a city that is home to the U.S. auto industry, the comment was aimed at showing that the Romneys drive American-made cars. But, in a state where many working-class families are struggling, it was a reminder of Romney's wealth.
Ann Romney likes to tell the story about how she was fed up with presidential politics after her husband lost the Republican nomination to Arizona Senator John McCain in 2008.
She recalled that when she told Mitt Romney she was not excited about another campaign, he responded, "Ann, you say that after every pregnancy."
Last year, Ann Romney said, she told her husband that she would commit to a campaign in 2012 under one condition.
"I'm not going to do all this unless you can get (to Washington) and fix it," she recalled. "And he said he would."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Philip Barbara)