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MATOPO HILLS, Zimbabwe – Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe plucked her from the secretarial pool decades ago to become his wife. Now Grace Mugabe is stirring speculation that she wants to succeed her 93-year-old husband as leader.
The power couple's extraordinary arc is deeply felt in this southern African nation. Many are pondering how their dynamic will affect the country, which is in economic decline and political limbo amid uncertainty how a leadership transition will unfold. Many in Zimbabwe have had no other president.
The 51-year-old Grace Mugabe is now her elderly husband's No. 1 protector, helping him when he struggled with a shovel at a recent tree-planting ceremony and declaring that he should run "as a corpse" in next year's election if he dies before the vote.
She has said their relationship is like any other (fights included, both have said). From their statements and body language in public, they seem to have each other's back amid the questions over who will be next in Zimbabwe to hold power.
"I live with him, cook for him, share the table with him and discuss many issues as a family," Grace Mugabe said adoringly to thousands of well-wishers at a birthday celebration for the president last month. "In other words, we share so many intimate discussions together, as many ordinary married couples could do."
A former teacher who studied law and economics in prison during the country's white minority rule, Robert Mugabe has been shrewd, soft-spoken and, to his opponents, ruthless. He is an African nationalist who likes finely tailored suits. Despite his fading vigor, he flies regularly to other countries, including Singapore for medical treatment.
His wife, previously lampooned for shopping expeditions and a doctorate obtained under questionable circumstances, has built a serious if polarizing political profile with charity work and frequent rallies. She has endured harsh criticism — a "prostitute" or a scheming Lady Macbeth, some have said — but has dished her own barbs.
The constitution says the senior of two vice presidents would take office if the president dies, resigns or is removed from power, but Grace Mugabe's feuds with some ruling ZANU-PF party factions have many people doubting that a leadership change would go by the book.
"She's in the mix," said Tom McDonald, a Washington-based lawyer who was U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe from 1997 to 2001. Meanwhile, he said, the relationship serves the political interests of both partners. The frail Robert Mugabe feeds off his wife's vibrancy, while she sponges up stature from his presidential aura.
Mugabe was a leader of the fight against white minority rule in Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe after independence in 1980, and sparred with the West following its criticism of his land grabs from white farmers and its sanctions against the president, his wife and associates.
At his Feb. 25 birthday celebration, it was Grace Mugabe who blasted Europe and the United States, while her mostly subdued husband mused at times about mortality.
"Our erstwhile colonizers are fighting tooth and nail" to try to sabotage black empowerment programs in Zimbabwe, said Grace Mugabe, head of the women's league of the ruling party. Critics dismiss such arguments, saying the country's problems derive from mismanagement and repression under its longtime ruler.
Grace Mugabe has often talked about how she cares for the president, once telling him that it was time to end a speech. He chuckled, saying that was how she always treats him at home.
Jenni Williams, a human rights activist who has been arrested many times in Zimbabwe, speculated that there is a "political basis" in the relationship between the Mugabes, though she noted that Grace has a "separate, additional role" as the mother of her husband's three children.
"Perhaps the power has shifted from Mugabe to Grace as he has become more and more unwell," Williams said.
The couple had two children while Mugabe's first wife, Sally Hayfron, was ailing from the kidney failure that killed her in 1992. Grace split with her own husband, and her wedding to Mugabe in 1996 was attended by Nelson Mandela and other African leaders.
"What will happen to her when Mugabe is gone is another matter. Right now she is the most powerful, more powerful than Mugabe, I think," said Innocent Lijomeka, a university student in the capital, Harare.
Marian Mutsindikwu, a street vendor selling airtime for mobile phones, said she doesn't have "a problem" with Grace Mugabe.
"The first lady seems charitable," Mutsindikwu said. "However, the greatest gift she can give us is advising the old man to rest."
Associated Press writer Farai Mutsaka in Harare, Zimbabwe contributed.
Follow Christopher Torchia on Twitter at www.twitter.com/torchiachris