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Inside the calculated campaign roles of Ann Romney and Michelle Obama

Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, speaks on stage during the Republican National Convention.
Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, speaks on stage during the Republican National Convention.
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The presidential campaign this week is finally getting the attention of voters. This week's Republican National Convention and next week's Democratic National Convention give millions of people a chance to tune into the race.

But one person who's not tuning in this week? First lady Michelle Obama.

"I, as the wife of the guy they are running against, I tend not to watch it," said Obama on Wednesday night's David Letterman. "But I think it's important for everyone to watch these conventions. Because this is the time where you get to know the party, you understand the platform, you understand the candidates. You know, this is technically where the campaign begins."

But that doesn't mean she isn't campaigning... And so is Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, who's not only at the RNC but gave a rousing speech just two days before Mrs. Obama worked the talk shows.

"To every American who is thinking about who should be our next president: no one will work harder, no one will care more, and no one will move heaven and earth like Mitt Romney to make this country a better place to live," she said to rousing cheers.

New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, author of the book "The Obamas," says that candidates' significant others have an important role in how their spouses are perceived by a voting populace.

"Some people believe she actually outshines her husband," says Kantor of Mitt Romney's wife, Ann. "Even the Obama people take her very seriously as a campaigner."

But she's far from alone — in a recent Gallup poll, Michelle's approval rating was 14 points higher than her husband's (and 24 points higher among Republicans). Attack ads and speeches that target spouses are extremely rare, and often frowned upon (a 2008 conservative ad based on comments from Mrs. Obama sparked weeks of media backlash).

"They get to be above it all," says Kantor. "In Ann Romney's speech, she began by saying 'this isn't a political speech, this is about love.' The more they seem above the fray, above the politics, the more effective they are."

But, she says, that comes with a possible downside. When we think of Michelle Obama, for instance, gardens in the White House, healthy-eating programs and beautiful dresses are often what come to mind — not her Princeton and Harvard schooling, or her past life as an attorney.

"When she speaks, we're not going to hear the forceful argument of a Harvard-trained lawyer," says Kantor. "In fact, aides say that in private her advocacy for her husband is so strong, they have to get her to tone it down in campaign speeches."

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