Stamford — The reluctant campaigner of campaigns past, a relaxed Ann Romney stepped to a microphone Monday in an overcrowded ballroom in her new role as the most popular surrogate for the presidential campaign of her husband, Mitt Romney.

The wife of a candidate who struggles to emotionally connect with voters, Romney choked up as she talked about conversations with women on the campaign trail and her battles with multiple sclerosis and breast cancer.

Ann Romney

Ann Romney

Woven throughout were references to the man she married 43 years ago, whose public image she is trying to soften as he gets new attention as the presumptive Republican nominee.

“He has been by my side in good days and bad days. In my darkest hour, he stood by my side, with my diagnosis of multiple sclerosis,” she said. “He kept encouraging me and kept loving me.”

She left to a sustained standing ovation.

Romney, who turned 63 a week ago, was the happy target of an insulting gaffe by Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist who dismissed her as a stay-at-home mom who never worked a day in her life.

While conservative commentators rushed to her defense and even President Obama felt compelled to distance himself from Rosen, Romney was overheard by an NBC reporter reveling in the attack on her.

“It was my early birthday present for someone to be critical of me as a mother, and that was really a defining moment, and I loved it,” she said, according to NBC.

Jerry Labriola, the state chairman of the GOP, said he believed the flap helped sell tickets to the annual event that largely sets the budget for the state party. He estimated the gross at $300,000. The Stamford Marriott ballroom Monday night held a crowd of about 800, with 11 chairs crowded around tables that typically accomodate eight.

“Thank you, Hilary,” Labriola said.

He introduced Romney with a smile and these words: “Yes, Ann Romney works hard every day.”

The crowd applauded and cheered Labriola’s introduction. The audience included the GOP’s two leading candidates for U.S. Senate, Linda McMahon and Christopher Shays, who sat near each other at a banquet table behind the speaker’s lectern.

Well aware of how the “never-worked-a-day” gaffe has played, Romney seemed more amused than insulted. She talked about the routine of raising five boys.

“Some people think that I didn’t work,” Romney said.

She paused and smiled, waiting for a wave of laughter and applause to subside.

“Having done those things for so many years, taking care of the children, doing the laundry, doing the grocery shopping, doing the cooking, all of those things, which I did by the way … “

She laughed again.

“I didn’t have help for many, many years. I didn’t have any help at all until the fifth baby was born, and I had emergency surgery when he was 4 months old and I was in bed and realized I couldn’t take care of five small boys with Mitt working so hard and needing a little extra help.”

When her husband tried to find common cause with auto workers in Michigan, he stumbled, referring to the multiple Cadillacs driven by Ann Romney. But his wife talked Monday about laundry, groceries and sick kids in the middle of the night.

“And I know what it’s like to struggle and have those concerns that all mothers have,” said Romney, who also is the grandmother of 16.

She tread deftly around the Rosen flap, talking about the choices women have and how they all should be respected. The audience applauded.

“Making the choice that I did, which was to stay home and be a mother, that he would remind me all the time that my job was more important than his, that his job was temporary,” she said of her husband. ‘”He valued me. He treated me as an equal partner.”

Her voice broke as she said she was overwhelmed by the public support she finds campaigning.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that, because the days are long. The road is hard. The trials are there. And I never know, when I have this little gray cloud over my head, when it’s going to start raining on me again,” she said, an apparent allusion to her M.S., now in remission.

She was the keynote speaker at Prescott Bush Awards Dinner, an annual fundraiser named for the late U.S. senator from Connecticut who was the father of one president and grandfather of another.

When Ann Romney agreed to keynote the Bush dinner three weeks ago, it was a seen as a coup, landing the candidate’s wife on the eve of a Connecticut primary that suddenly seemed relevant as Rick Santorum was surging.

Now, Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee, and the five northeastern primaries being held Tuesday in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania are a celebratory milestone.

Instead of spending the night in Stamford for some early morning campaigning in Connecticut, Ann Romney quickly left after speaking for nearly 20 minutes to return to Boston.

On Tuesday, Labriola said, the Romneys intend to celebrate at a public event in New Hampshire, one of the states where they own a home and the scene of Romney’s first primary victory.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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