NEW YORK (AFP) - Looking to bounce back after a rocky week, Donald Trump called his better half to the rescue Monday by bringing his wife Melania onto the presidential campaign stage for the first time.
The 45-year-old former model of Slovenian origin is chic and stylish, but until now her public presence alongside her Republican front runner husband has been fleeting, including brief appearances at election watch parties. Her interviews have been limited.
But in the US state of Wisconsin, where polls show Trump trailing his arch-conservative rival Ted Cruz in the primary that the state hosts Tuesday, Melania is accompanying her husband at several campaign events, according to team Trump.
"She's going to campaign," the candidate himself announced Saturday in Racine, Wisconsin. "She's never done this before, so that will be exciting. Melania is coming up."
Trump, whose apparent degrading of women and controversial remarks about Mexicans and Muslims have raised alarm bells in the Republican Party and more broadly across the American electorate, has confided that his wife has encouraged him to be "more presidential".
Melania unwittingly found herself in the eye of the storm last month in one of the low points of the campaign, when an anti-Trump political group unveiled a questionable ad on Facebook that used a photo of her lying naked and handcuffed to a briefcase. The photograph, taken aboard Trump's custom-fitted private jet, was used on the cover of GQ magazine and taken during a shoot for the magazine in 2000, before the couple married.
The political poster, released just before votes in Arizona and Utah, featured the photo with the words: "Meet Melania Trump. Your next first lady. Or, you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday."
Trump accused Cruz, a senator from Texas, of being behind the provocation and responded by retweeting a photo montage showing an image of Melania next to an unflattering picture of Ted Cruz's wife Heidi, along with the phrase: "The images are worth a thousand words."
The few times that Melania has spoken out, she gushed over her husband, telling MSNBC in February that she was initially attracted by his "great energy", charm and "amazing mind".
The couple have a 10-year-old son, Barron.
"I am a full-time mom, and I love it," a smiling Melania proclaimed, adding that her maternal role was the reason she was not out campaigning more with Trump.
"But I support my husband 100 per cent," she said.
Melania has defended Trump's more controversial statements.
"I don't feel he insulted the Mexicans," she said of his explosive remark last June that Mexico was sending "rapists" and other criminals across the border as undocumented immigrants.
"He said illegal immigrants," she added. "He didn't talk about everybody." She also stressed that her husband had proposed only a "temporary" ban on Muslims entering the country.
"He wants to protect America... That's very important to him," she said, adding that he treats women the same way as men in the Trump organization.
Born in what was then Yugoslavia to a fashion-industry mother and a car-salesman father, Melania has recounted studying design and architecture before leaving for Milan and Paris to launch her modelling career.
She arrived in the United States in 1996 and met Trump two years later.
They married in January 2005 in Florida and her Dior dress was estimated at US$200,000 (S$270,400). Among the invited celebrities was Hillary Clinton, this year's likely Democratic presidential nominee.
Melania speaks at least five languages, including English, Italian, French and German.
Her Twitter account - inactive since Trump declared his candidacy - reflects the privileged lifestyle of a jet-setter travelling between their lavish New York apartment and residences in Florida.
She has tweeted photographs from high-society gatherings and landmark sporting events, as well as recollections of her red-carpet saunters and charity functions. In each image, Melania appears impeccably dressed.
Initially, she was not entirely on board with the idea of Trump launching a White House bid, with the candidate acknowledging recently that Melania would have been content as the wife of a billionaire businessman and reality TV star.
"She said, 'We have such a great life. Why do you want to do this?'" Trump told The Washington Post in an interview published on Saturday.
"I really have to do it," Trump said he told her, adding that his wife eventually backed his bid and was confident of his victory.