Mitt Romney tries to explain ‘RomneyCare.’ Will it work?

Speaking to Republican activists in New Hampshire, likely presidential candidate Mitt Romney addressed a major challenge: The health care program he took credit for as governor of Massachusetts. Critics say it's a lot like "ObamaCare."

Jim Cole/AP
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, jokes with some old friends Saturday, March 5, in Bartlett, N.H. Romney was the keynote speaker at the Carroll County Republican Committee Lincoln Day Dinner.

At last, Mitt Romney is tackling head-on his major stumbling block to winning the GOP presidential nomination next year: The health care program he promoted and took credit for when he was governor of Massachusetts – which President Obama has said was the model for the national health care reform law derided by conservatives.

Will Romney be able to sufficiently distinguish “RomneyCare” from “ObamaCare” – even though both have an individual mandate requiring coverage?

In the important first presidential primary state of New Hampshire Saturday, he tried mightily.

"Our experiment wasn't perfect – some things worked, some didn't, and some things I'd change," Romney acknowledged in speaking to conservative activists at the Carroll County Lincoln Day Dinner in Bartlett, N.H.

“Our approach was a state plan intended to address problems that were in many ways unique to Massachusetts,” he said. “What we did there as Republicans and Democrats was what the Constitution intended for states to do – we were one of the laboratories of democracy.”

Then he laid into the new federal law.

“One thing I would never do is to usurp the constitutional power of states with a one-size-fits-all federal takeover,” he said. “ObamaCare is bad law constitutionally, bad policy, and it is bad for America’s families…. I would repeal ObamaCare, if I were ever in a position to do so.”

Romney’s speech Saturday was in contrast to his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last month. There, he said not a word about the Massachusetts plan, and he barely mentioned the new federal law.

Obviously, pretending it didn’t exist was not going to work, but whether Romney’s explanation now is sufficient remains a big question.

The Associated Press points out that the Massachusetts law signed by Romney in 2006 “has a more sweeping mandate for people to get insurance than exists in Obama's law – and penalizes the uninsured more severely.”

Other contestants for the GOP presidential nomination see – and are trying to take advantage of – Romney’s vulnerability here.

In his new book “A Simple Government,” Mike Huckabee writes: “If our goal in health-care reform is better care at lower cost, then we should take a lesson from RomneyCare, which shows that socialized medicine does not work.”

“He’s got to figure out how he wants to deal with it,” Huckabee told the Associated Press. “It’s the 800-pound elephant in the room for him.”

Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour, and Tim Pawlenty all have sniped at Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan as well. (Huckabee and Gingich have their own problems, highlighted in a hard-hitting piece Sunday by conservative columnist George Will.)

Romney knows he has to change his image and message here.

In the paperback edition of his own book “No Apology,” Romney does a bit of rewriting on the subject, David Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix points out.

Some chunks that were in the hardback edition are removed, some provisions of the Massachusetts law are blamed on the Democratically-controlled legislature there and on Gov. Deval Patrick, and the differences between RomneyCare and ObamaCare are more strongly emphasized.

It’s no laughing matter for his political future, particularly among conservative activists – the ones most likely to vote in primary elections – picking their champion for 2012. A new Gallup poll of regular Fox News viewers has Romney behind Huckabee by a whisker.

But in New Hampshire Saturday night, Romney tried to put a humorous spin on his predicament.

“You may have noticed that the president and his people spend more time talking about me and Massachusetts health care than 'Entertainment Tonight' spends talking about Charlie Sheen,” he said.

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