TAMPA — Ann Romney will take to the podium here tonight and try to accomplish what the sharpest minds in Republican politics have failed to do: present her stiff and awkward husband as a likeable guy.
Her speech is considered second in importance only to Mitt Romney's and will set the tone for the week as the Republican Party presents its case for turning President Barack Obama out of office.
Convention and campaign officials see Ann Romney, 63, as the only person who can credibly change the image of the former Massachusetts governor from remote rich guy to that of a man of warmth and character.
"She will step back from her stump speech and outline the tenants of Mitt Romney's life," said Katie Packer George, deputy campaign manager.
"It will be a bigger, broader speech that will go back to Mitt's earlier life, the values his parents gave him, his life as a successful businessman, as head of the Olympics, as governor as a father and husband."
And Ann Romney might just get a dramatic assist: the convention is buzzing with rumors that the candidate himself might stroll onto the stage after she speaks during prime time to energize the convention. He is expected to arrive in Tampa today.
If there has been a recurring mantra from GOP message makers during this convention so far, it is that Romney's low likeability is of little consequence in an election cycle in which voters are looking for competence and leadership. But there is also an awareness among Republicans that no matter how hard they try to present Romney as "uniquely qualified" to lead the country at this juncture, polls show that voters see him as out-of-touch with the middle class and unable to relate the everyday challenges life presents.
And so Ann Romney will also strive to show that her family, like many others, had its share of burdens and crises to shoulder.
"You will learn that the Romney family is not that different from other families when it comes to dealing with personal challenges an medical crises," says Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's closest adviser and confidant. "Ann has a saying: Everyone has his or her own bag of rocks to carry. In the case of the Romney family, it has been her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis and later her cancer scare.
"To the extent people want to know a more personal side of Mitt Romney, Ann Romney will be that messenger," Fehrnstrom said.
Friends, family and aides said Ann Romney has been holding up under the stress of the campaign well. But there have been some indications that it has been a struggle. She recently acknowledged that she had a MS flare-up last spring, which she attributed to exhaustion. A family member said she didn't share it with her husband or five sons.
She was an integral part of the hard-fought primary season, traveling with her husband and introducing him frequently. Her presence provided a desperately needed humanizing element for the candidate, who generally spent 10 minutes of his 20-minute stump speech singing America the Beautiful.
But since he locked up the nomination, she has rarely appeared on the campaign trail. She was on hand for the announcement of Paul Ryan as the vice presidential choice, but dropped off the trail after the two candidates parted ways two days later. Traveling reporters say she has been cooler toward them.
A couple of weeks ago, she gave an interview to NBC during which she appeared testy and angry about the Obama campaign attacks on her husband. "Have you seen how we're attacked? Have you seen what's happened?" Romney pointedly asked NBC's Natalie Morales, when pressed about why the couple refuses to release releases more tax returns.
"We have been very transparent to what's legally required of us. But, the more we release, the more we get attacked. The more we get questioned, the more we get pushed."
Tagg Romney, born in 1970, the couple's oldest son, says that his mother "knows this is a tough sport and she knows the twists and turns and that what is happening is so much bigger than all of us. We have developed thick skin."
As to what Ann Romney meant when she told NBC, "I don't think he could do it without me. I don't believe he could," Tagg Romney said, "He relies on hers for inner strength.
"She provides him a inner strength and confidence and purpose. Presidential campaigns are grueling and challenging and nasty and personal, She knows that strong family support is very important."
Campaign officials are vague about what role Ann Romney will play in the fall campaign — except to say that it will be significant.
Although she spent most of her adult life as a stay-at-home mom, she is at ease speaking about personal matters publicly — of raising five sons, her 43-year marriage and how her husband supported her during her health struggles.
One challenge aides have long faced is how to get the most impact from her appearances. She is an effective surrogate in her own rights, but the candidate performs betters when she is around.
"When he is away from her he tends to gets anxious and a little bit frazzled," says Fehrnstrom. "When that happens, we look for opportunities to have them meet up on the campaign trail."
Ginger Gibson contributed to this report.