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Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, finds strength in her family and her horses – and she’s emerging as a potent political force this campaign season.

“Ann deserves a lot of credit,” says GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. “Politicians talk about family values, Ann and Mitt Romney live them.”

Her husband calls her “one of America’s great moms” – a description she’s “totally satisfied with.”

Mrs. Romney, 58, invited PEOPLE into the sunshine-yellow sitting room of her Belmont, Mass., home on June 12 to talk about her Mormon faith, raising five boys, living with Multiple Sclerosis – and her designs on the White House.

Here is the complete interview:

What do you most want people to know about you?
The thing people are most curious about is that I have MS and then the fact that I’ve overcome it. When you’re used to being healthy and strong and vibrant and everything and then – bang – overnight you’re desperately ill, it’s frightening. People liken it to the same stages you go through grieving a death, where it takes a long time to accept it. Now that I’ve had it a number of years, I spend a lot of time on the phone privately talking to people who have just been recently diagnosed. That’s my way of helping others. I always recommend going to a good doctor, doing the right medicines and then combining that with holistic [treatments.]

Ann Romney
What was your experience with MS like?
I had a very aggressive deterioration where I went from a matter of – October to December [1997] – of my whole right side going completely numb and being completely weakened and, I mean, I don’t want to get that graphic about what happens, but you lose bowel and bladder control. It’s so scary, you can’t even imagine. I thought it was moving so fast it was going to kill me. But for me, I was put on [a 9-month course of] intravenous steroids and that worked like a charm. The thing is, you want to caution that everyone’s diagnosis is different and everyone’s treatment is different. I was having enormous fatigue and that’s where the holistic part helped me. So, the steroids worked for stopping the progression and the holistic part helped me with energy.

You used horseback riding as therapy?
This enormous joy and passion that I had with riding horses got me out of bed, got me motivated, got me physically moving again, removed me to a very happy place and I would have so much joy and happiness and just so much fun while I was on the horse that I would even forget I was sick. Now I was really, really weak at the beginning when I was first riding. I had always dreamed that I might be able to even compete in the Grand Prix ring. Well, last year, not only did I compete, I earned the Gold Medal for the United States. Not only did I compete in Grand Prix, I’m also the highest-ranked Grand Prix rider in New England. Amateur, but still.

How did your husband take your diagnosis?
He was amazing. Initially we were both devastated. There was a lot of education we had to absorb about the disease. When he really helped me was when I was going through this really depressed period where I felt like I was 80 years old, there was nothing I could ever do again and life was over for me. I was of no use to anybody. It wasn’t as though I was suicidal, but I was at the point where I thought, Couldn’t I please just have cancer and die? And that’s when Mitt would look at me, like, what? Finally he just said, ‘I don’t care if you aren’t able to do the things you used to do, those things don’t matter. We can get through anything together. As long as you’re just still here, everything will be okay.’

Ann and Mitt Romney at a campaign stop in Iowa.
What drew you to the Mormon Church?
A hundred-percent personal thing. Mitt was the first Mormon I met and we began dating in high school. I just started asking him questions. I was curious.

What about the faith appealed to you?
I think it was just their belief in God and Jesus Christ and the plan of Salvation and our purpose here in life and all of those things that I think were being answered by the faith.

Was your family okay with it?
Oh, no! My dad was mortified. Can you imagine? The great agnostic that he is? Then, a few years later, not only did I get baptized, but my two brothers did, too. A few years later, my father was now telling all of his friends, “You got a problem with your teenagers? Send ’em to Brigham Young University. You can’t believe it; it’s the greatest place.”

What are some of the misunderstandings about the church?
Polygamy, obviously is one, but that’s just going to take such a long time. It’s not practiced and it just drives me crazy every time I see these specials about ‘Oh, the Mormons and the polygamy.’ And they always equate Mormon and polygamy as if they still do it. Sometimes it’s frustrating for me that the church doesn’t get more aggressive about it, too, making it really clear that they’re really opposed to it.

Do you follow all of the Doctrine and Covenants, the sacred undergarments, no hot drinks or alcohol?
Well, you know, I mean, we’re practicing and active, so you can imagine we do some of the things that you’d expect. My kids don’t drink and don’t smoke. For me, that’s been a great blessing actually, raising boys.

Have you seen Big Love?
Nope. Never seen it.

Law & Order (starring Fred Thompson, who’s expected to enter the GOP race)?
I have seen it. Love it.

Ann Romney stands by husband Mitt.
As first lady of Massachusetts, you were active in teen pregnancy prevention and faith-based work with inner-city children. Would you continue these in the White House?
I think that would be very similar. MS awareness and working to make sure that at-risk youth make right choices. Every child is terrific they just need to be given the opportunity to make the right choices so they can have a more fulfilling and rich life.

You made the decision to stay at home and have an interesting story about finishing your college degree.
I was going at night, taking this Harvard extension program and finishing my hours. I had maybe just a semester’s worth of hours to do. I remember taking Josh, who was a baby then, to the class, nursing him in the back of the class. I think that was a first. It’s one of those things where the professor is like, Wait, wait, wait, this is liberal Harvard, but what am I going to do about that woman in the back with a baby that’s nursing? He just kept pretending like I wasn’t there. There was a blind man sitting at the back of the room with me and finally after a few weeks of class, he goes, “I gotta ask you a question, what’s that noise over there?”

In the circles you’re in, do you ever feel self-conscious or apologetic about the choices you’ve made?
Never. Motherhood was my career, and I’m totally satisfied with that and the blessings that come with that. I feel it’s been a privilege to be able to be a stay-at-home mom. I know there’s so many women who would love to be and don’t have that option and so for me it was a privilege to be able to have that option. And I value women that struggle and wish they could stay at home full-time but don’t. And then I value women, too, that choose professionally to have a career.

What’s your favorite memory from raising five boys?
It was wild. It was rowdy. There were times when seriously you just wanted to pull your hair out because you’d wish they would just be quiet for a minute, or sit, or even bake cookies or pick up their dishes or any of that, which never happened spontaneously. But then there were the fun times when honestly, they were so silly, the five all together that you just laughed a lot because there was just so much exuberance and happiness. I learned a lot from having boys.

Did you have any help?
No housekeeper. Nothing. No.

What keeps you in love with your husband?
No one’s ever asked me that. I think we enjoy each other’s company very much. We just enjoy being with each other. Sometimes we can just sit in a room and not talk; it doesn’t matter. We just want to be together.