WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney tried Thursday to slay his biggest political demon: his support as governor of Massachusetts of a sweeping health care overhaul widely considered a prototype for the national "Obamacare" law that Republicans revile.
The likely 2012 Republican presidential candidate vigorously defended the state program, calling it a "state solution to a state problem." However, Romney insisted, the Massachusetts plan is certainly not right for all of America.
His painstaking effort to differentiate his state's 2006 law providing health-insurance coverage to nearly everyone from the 2010 national version backed by Democrats was a plea to skeptical Republicans that ultimately could make or break his political future. GOP activists have expressed grave reservations about whether Romney can be trusted, since they tend to consider both health plans emblematic of expensive, intrusive big government.
Romney's problem Thursday was that he couldn't turn his back on one of his signature achievements as governor.
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A lot of people, he said, "are saying that I should just stand up and say this whole thing was a mistake, that it was a bone-headed idea and I should just admit it." But, he said, "There's only one problem with that: It wouldn't be honest. I, in fact, did what I believe was right for the people of my state."
In contrast, Romney said, the 2010 federal law, which requires most people to get coverage by 2014, was "a power grab by the federal government to put in a place a one-size-fits-all plan across the nation."
It's questionable whether the speech will help Romney shed what's become an increasingly weighty political albatross.
"Romney has two things going against him: He was the governor of liberal Massachusetts, and he had a health care program the Obama administration used as a model. That is embedded in the minds of the Republican faithful," said Thomas Whalen, political historian at Boston University.
Romney spoke to an audience in Ann Arbor, Mich., not a key early Republican primary or caucus state, but one where his father was a three-term governor in the 1960s and where Mitt Romney won the 2008 GOP presidential primary.
His proposed health-care solutions are familiar Republican ideas: Give states the ability to opt out of the 2010 health care law; repeal it entirely; provide tax deductions to people who buy their own coverage; and offer more help for states to aid the poor.
As long as Barack Obama is president and Democrats control the Senate, such proposals are unlikely to get much traction. Experts also cite the practical difficulty of repealing the law sometime in 2013, the first year of the next presidential term, since many popular features will have gone into effect.
Some 26 provisions went into effect last year, including permitting adult children to remain on their parents' health plans until age 26, and prohibitions on lifetime coverage limits on most benefits.
Romney's mission is to assure Republicans that he is and always has been sympathetic to their health care concerns. He called the federal health care law "an economic nightmare" that raises taxes and costs jobs.
Among its tax increases are higher Medicare payroll taxes for wealthier people starting in 2013 and an excise tax on high-end insurance policies starting in 2018. Expert opinion is divided about whether the health care plan is a job creator or killer.
Romney badly needs to put the health care issue aside, particularly in New Hampshire, traditionally the nation's first primary state. He's currently a heavy favorite there, but if health care erupts into a major issue, Romney could face trouble.
"He's been so up and down about this," said Jane Aitken, of Bedford, N.H., who's active in the tea party movement. "He's all over the map."
Romney has come under withering criticism from the right for his health care law. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page said Thursday that Romney's stand on health care "suggests serious flaws both in his candidacy and as a potential President. ... If he does not change his message, he might as well try to knock off Joe Biden and get on the Obama ticket."
Even Obama has taken a friendly jab at Romney.
"There's a vicious rumor floating around that I think could really hurt Mitt Romney," he said at last month's White House Correspondents Dinner. "I heard he passed universal health care when he was governor of Massachusetts. Someone should get to the bottom of that."
Romney's task could be most difficult in conservative South Carolina, which usually holds the South's first primary.
"It's a pretty big deal, and this is pretty important to the conservative base," said Diane Carr, a Republican activist from Lake Wylie. "People just don't trust him. He's flip flopped on his original position."
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