WASHINGTON — When Mitt Romney speaks to a convention of conservatives here Friday, he faces a potentially lethal political obstacle: His past embrace of a health insurance mandate like the one his fellow Republicans now deride as “Obamacare.”
“I like mandates. The mandates work,” he said when seeking the presidency in 2008.
Such talk makes many conservatives shudder, and it’s plaguing the former Massachusetts governor’s likely 2012 bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He’s among the best-known, best-financed and best-organized potential candidates, but he’s haunted by this health care shadow.
As governor, Romney signed legislation in 2006 requiring most people in Massachusetts to obtain health insurance. He has repeatedly said that while states should have the option to impose such mandates, Washington shouldn’t.
The Massachusetts law is widely considered the model for the national health care program — and its requirement that most people obtain health coverage by 2014 — which President Barack Obama signed into law last year. Fierce opposition to it has become a strong rallying point for Republicans.
Romney will speak Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. The audience will hear from a parade of potential GOP presidential candidates over three days, and they warn that Romney better have a good explanation for his health care record.
“The health care plan he supported in Massachusetts is eerily similar to Obamacare,” said Ed Failor, the president of Iowans for Tax Relief, a conservative group.
Romney’s speech is one of the gathering’s most anticipated. His 2008 White House bid failed, in no small part because he couldn’t convince the conservatives who dominate the GOP electorate that he was truly one of them, on issues such as abortion and gay rights.
Since then, he’s traveled the nation to champion their causes, donating his money and time to their campaigns. He’s among the most popular potential candidates in national polls on the still-evolving 2012 GOP presidential field, as well as the narrow leader in cash on hand. But lurking behind all that is the health care problem.
“If you want a liberal albatross to put around Romney’s neck, this is it,” said Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social science at Boston University.
Romney’s camp didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Nate Gunderson, who manages MittRomneyCentral.com, a website that promotes the candidate, acknowledges, “This is a problem, but we’ll be trying to correct the record.” Their point of emphasis: Romney favors allowing states to determine what’s best for their residents, and opposes Washington telling them what to do.
It’s uncertain how this states’ rights argument will play among conservatives.
Whalen calls the states’ rights argument the “Jefferson Davis approach, which is somewhat idiotic.”
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Romney tries to nuance his stand on the mandate. In January 2008, during a New Hampshire Republican debate, he defended the health care mandate in his state. But, he added, “I would not mandate at the federal level that every state do what we do.”
Last week, he told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the federal health care law “is a very bad piece of legislation.”
But, he added, “I’m not going to apologize for the rights of states to craft plans on a bipartisan basis that they think will help their people,” Romney said.
Pressed on whether he’d specifically apologize for the mandate, Romney said, “Of course not. I’m not apologizing for it.”
Romney’s preparation for 2012 so far has largely been outside the public spotlight. He donated money to hundreds of candidates last year. In January, he visited Afghanistan and the Middle East to burnish his foreign policy credentials.
Last week, he was reported to be in Boston and New Hampshire, meeting privately with supporters and fundraisers, and he’s been promoting the paperback version of his book “No Apology.” On Feb. 1, Romney read a Top 10 list on “Late Night with David Letterman” and appeared with his wife, Ann, on “The View.” He’s scheduled to speak on March 5 in New Hampshire at the Carroll County Lincoln Day dinner.
But GOP activists say he’s been nearly invisible in Iowa and South Carolina, two early nominating states he lost in 2008. And he still needs to overcome some of the questions that dogged him then.
Romney was sympathetic to abortion rights when he ran for governor, but later became vocally anti-abortion. There also have been questions about whether sizable blocs of voters will reject him because of his Mormon faith.
“If you’re looking for black-and-white answers, you’re not going to get them from Mitt Romney,” said Craig Robinson, the founder and editor of the Iowa Republican, a partisan newsletter. Romney made only two visits to the nation’s first caucus state last year, Robinson said, and in both cases, “he was like an after-dinner speaker. It was all personality” and little substance.
“He has a lot of good qualities, a lot of executive experience. But I don’t know much about a campaign this time,” added Steve Scheffler, the president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition.
Activists in South Carolina, the nation’s first Southern primary, also have seen little of Romney.
David Woodard, a Clemson, S.C., GOP consultant, said that during the last campaign cycle, he had breakfast regularly with Romney. This time, nothing yet.
And, Woodard finds, “people want to talk about the new guys. I think he’s going to have a real hard time here.”