Wives are top assets for Obama, Romney in White House race
The south side Chicago lawyer and wealthy stay-at-home mom couldn't disagree more when it comes to politics, but Michelle Obama and Ann Romney have one thing in common: They are indispensable on the campaign trail.
Obama, 48, wife of President Barack Obama, began her path to First Lady of the United States in a four-room apartment in Chicago's predominantly black south side. Her mother was a secretary and her father worked at a water treatment plant.
She graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School before starting careers as a lawyer, city administrator and community outreach officer.
Romney, 63, wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Her father was a successful, self-made businessman and part-time mayor of the town.
She graduated from the Mormon church's Brigham Young University with a degree in French before raising five children as a stay-at-home mom diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Their differing paths converge on the campaign trail, however, where they have proven to be invaluable. A Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier this month found Obama's approval rating was 69 per cent, 14 points higher than her husband, and Romney's approval rating at 52 per cent, 5 points higher than her husband.
Both women appeal to core groups within their parties, and have been deployed during campaigns to humanize their husbands, who are often accused of being aloof and out-of-touch.
Obama took the lead reaching out to African American voters in 2008 and she continues to be the chosen voice to reach them in 2012.
After President Obama came out in support of gay marriage in May it was his wife who spoke to 30,000 members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church conference in Nashville, many of them angry with the president's announcement.
She borrowed heavily from religious texts in her sermon and referenced her family's origins as southern blacks; by the time her 30-minute speech was over the crowd had given her several standing ovations. Obama traces her family tree back to southern slaves.
Obama campaign officials credit her candid, blue-collar speech - she says "ya'll" and sometimes slips into a south side Chicago inflection - for her ability to connect with working class voters.
Despite her appeal to the working class, Obama retains a distinctly educated and sophisticated air. Her youth, fashion sense and good looks have led many people to compare her to Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of the late president John F Kennedy.
Romney's personality has also proven to be the all-important humanizing factor for her husband, who has been likened to a robot by some critics.
Republican strategists have said her personal battle with multiple sclerosis and inner "steel" will be key for her husband's campaign to connect with struggling voters.
When Hilary Rosen, a Democratic adviser, attempted to paint the Romneys as wealthy and out-of-touch by asserting Romney had never worked "a day in her life," Romney turned the attack to her advantage.
She appeared in several interviews, rebutting the accusations by explaining the difficulty of being a mother of five children with multiple sclerosis.
Her descriptions of the "dark" times her family went through when the disease left her bed-ridden were a politically savvy way to show how even the wealthy struggle, strategists said.
Obama's and Romney's weaknesses go hand-in-hand with their strengths. They are more candid than their husbands, sometimes to a political fault.
Obama's low-income black roots and work at a non-profit encouraging young people to become involved in social issues contributed to her credibility within the African American community, campaign officials have said.
Her thesis at Princeton was titled "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community" and explored the challenges facing black students trying to maintain their identity while at Princeton.
But campaign aides have told her to play down her interest in race issues for fear that racially charged comments might scare some white voters.
The personal flair Romney adds to her husband's campaign has at times gone too far toward reinforcing the perception of her husband as rich and out-of-touch.
In a June interview on "CBS This Morning," Romney's fashion sense, which is seen as a bright contrast to her husband's buttoned-up appearance, drew criticism when she wore a 990-dollar Reed Krakoff blouse.
She was criticized for spending 77,000 dollars for a share of an expensive dressage horse that competed in the London Olympics. She has responded that riding the horse was part of her multiple sclerosis therapy. The Romneys' personal wealth is estimated at 230 million dollars.