Wives in ads, kids on the bus as GOP voting nears

December 26, 2011 - 5:07 AM
Romney 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney and his wife Ann eat burritos at Dos Amigos Burritos while campaigning in Concord, N.H. Friday, Dec. 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Mitt Romney's wife gushes about his silly side and devotion to their five sons and 16 grandchildren. Rick Santorum's college-age daughter opines online about missing the campus coffee shop and chats with friends about their Friday night plans. Jon Huntsman's daughters generate much-needed buzz for him with a joint Twitter account and online videos, including at least one that went viral.

Days away from voting in the Republican presidential race, the path to the nomination is quickly becoming a crowded family affair with spouses and offspring pitching in and doing far more than just smiling from the sidelines.

Ann Romney, Anita Perry and Callista Gingrich are starring in new TV ads for the husbands they've loyally campaigned for. Romney extols her husband's character and says "to me that makes a huge difference" in a candidate. Perry tells the "old-fashioned American story" of how she and her husband were high school sweethearts who had to wait until he was done flying airplanes around the world for the Air Force before they could marry. Callista Gingrich wishes the nation a Merry Christmas "from our family to yours" in husband Newt Gingrich's new holiday-themed TV ad.

Candidate kids, including those born to Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, are helping, too, acting as surrogates, strategists and, in some cases, sounding boards for parents competing for the right to challenge President Barack Obama next fall.

"There are times when I wonder why I'm not sitting in the coffee shop on campus with my friends, lightheartedly discussing ('Saturday Night Live') videos, how bad the cafeteria is, what our plans are for Friday night or how absolutely swamped we are with school work," Santorum's daughter Elizabeth lamented in a recent blog post. "But this is where God wanted me."

She has taken time off from her junior year at the University of Dallas to serve as a self-described "field staffer/phone banker/chauffeur/surrogate speaker," for her father, primarily in the leadoff caucus state of Iowa.

Her father, who hopes Iowa's socially conservative voters turn out for him on caucus night Jan. 3, rolled out an ad late last week featuring the entire Santorum clan, including the family German shepherd, Schotzy. The spot highlights his 21-year marriage to his wife, Karen, notes that he has coached Little League and introduces viewers to the youngest of the couple's seven children, Isabella, born in 2008 with a genetic disorder.

Sometimes the family members campaign with the candidates and other times they go it alone.

Such family involvement carries risks and benefits. The stories they tell often humanize the candidates and help voters relate to them. But the things they say, and do, can sometimes cause headaches for the campaign advisers who are left to try to figure out a way out.

While Rick Perry spent several days campaigning in Iowa recently, his wife was hundreds of miles away in New Hampshire emphasizing his small-town upbringing and conservative values at a retirement community chapel. Audience members then peppered her with detailed questions about such subjects as taxes, immigration and the death penalty.

"She handled them quite well," said Sid Schoeffler, an independent voter from Concord. "When she knew the answer or knew the campaign's story line, she recited it. And when she didn't know, she said so. I thought that was refreshing."

"Compared to what I expected, she made a favorable impression," he said. "But whether it's enough to swing my vote, I don't know yet."

Earlier in the year, as Bachmann rose in public opinion, her husband, Marcus, was forced to defend his Christian counseling business from claims that its therapies included "curing" people of being gay. With Bachmann now near the back of the GOP pack in polls, Marcus Bachmann joined her at the start of her bus tour of Iowa's 99 counties but was quickly replaced by four of their five children.

"My husband had to go home. We're small-business owners and someone had to go home and mind the store," Bachmann told one crowd. And at one point, Bachmann, who began losing her voice in the middle of the jam-packed tour, turned over the microphone to son Harrison, a teacher who talks up his family's ties to the state, and teased: "Harrison, say some nice things about me and you'll get extra cookies."

In Paul's case, he's probably hoping validation from his son, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a favorite of the tea party, will give him a boost with that pivotal constituency in Iowa. Rand Paul is also appearing in a television ad for his father.

Romney's five-son family and wife of more than four decades have long been a part of his presidential campaigns. But the spotlight has been shining more brightly on his wife and their brood in recent weeks as the campaign seeks to cast the former Massachusetts governor as a person of "steadiness and constancy" while drawing a contrast with the thrice-married Gingrich.

Ann Romney also has spoken openly about how her husband supported her through her struggle with multiple sclerosis.

Huntsman's wife and the couple's three oldest daughters are near-constant companions in New Hampshire, the only state where the former Utah governor is earnestly campaigning. His daughters recently generated a huge amount of buzz with a video spoof of an ad by former rival Herman Cain. They donned oversized glasses and fake mustaches to look like Cain's campaign manager.

"We are shamelessly promoting our dad like no other candidate's family has," one daughter said in the ad. "But then again, no one's ever seen a trio like the Jon2012 girls."

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Associated Press writers Philip Elliott and Steve Peoples contributed to this report.