TAMPA, Fla. — Meet Mitt Romney's sweetheart.
Making her national debut, Ann Romney swept onto the stage at the Republican National Convention late Tuesday night and delivered a forceful defense of her husband's character and values — and made an all-out play for the critical women's vote — in a speech designed to introduce the country to the man she knows better than anyone.
"I love you women! And I hear your voices," she said, wearing a red, belted dress as black-and-white photos of her family flashed on a giant screen above her head.
She touched on her struggles with multiple sclerosis and breast cancer. She defended her husband's work ethic, saying, "I can tell you Mitt Romney was not handed success." And she told the crowd about what she says she has learned about her husband after 43 years of marriage.
"This man will not fail," she said, as the crowd in Tampa Bay Times Forum erupted with cheers and gave her a sustained standing ovation.
Her pitch was aimed squarely at women who are raising families. "If you listen carefully, you'll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men. It's how it is, isn't it?" she said. "It's the moms who always have to work a little harder, to make everything right."
And Mrs. Romney defended her husband's wild success in business, offering a character testimonial to counter Democratic attack ads that have worked to paint her husband as wealthy and out-of-touch.
"Mitt doesn't like to talk about how he has helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point," she said. "And we're no different than the millions of Americans who quietly help their neighbors, their churches and their communities. They don't do it so that others will think more of them. They do it because there is no greater joy."
The goal of her carefully crafted speech: Help people understand the warm, personal side of her husband, a longtime candidate who has sometimes struggled to connect with voters — and who isn't nearly as well-liked as his opponent, Democratic President Barack Obama.
"Tonight, I want to talk to you about love," Mrs. Romney said.
The woman whom Romney often introduces as "my sweetheart, Ann Romney!" has played the role of humanizer for months now. Together, she and Mitt Romney have five children and 18 grandchildren who range in age from 16 years to just a few months old. She has appeared onstage often with her husband, who's obviously more at ease when she's by his side.
They met in high school, kept in touch while he served as a Mormon missionary in France, married young and had five children. On Tuesday, she emphasized how their struggles shaped their relationship.
"I read somewhere that Mitt and I have a 'storybook marriage,'" she told the crowd. "Those storybooks never seemed to have chapters called MS or breast cancer. A storybook marriage? No, not at all. What Mitt Romney and I have is a real marriage."
Mrs. Romney has never appeared before a crowd the size of the one gathered at the convention. The speech was viewed as so critical by the campaign that it moved her appearance, originally scheduled for Monday, a day later after the networks announced they wouldn't cover the first evening's events live.
"I've never gone off a written text. So this is a unique experience for me," Mrs. Romney said as she and her husband flew from Bedford, Mass., near their home, to Tampa on Tuesday morning.
Mrs. Romney suggested she played a significant role in shaping her speech.
"I did say it's going to be pretty, pretty tough to actually write a speech that I feel like I can actually give, and so I had a lot of input in this, I must say," she told reporters. "And a lot of tweaking where I felt like I was getting what I really wanted to say from my heart."
Romney's campaign is trying to show more of the two of them together — and emphasize their love story as an essential part of his biography. When Romney did an interview for "Fox News Sunday" ahead of the convention, the couple also invited anchor Chris Wallace to their lakeside home in New Hampshire, where Mitt Romney flipped pancakes on a griddle and Mrs. Romney, son Tagg and several grandchildren looked on.
When the pair sat down for a long interview with CBS News, they drove an hour out of their way to the Birmingham, Mich., movie theater where the couple used to go on dates as high school students.
And Tuesday night, she turned those early evenings out into a pitch for why voters should back her husband this fall.
"He will take us to a better place, just as he took me home safely from that dance," she said.