WASHINGTON (AP) – Mitt Romney waited until weeks before GOP primary voting began in 2008 to address a big vulnerability in his quest for the presidency – his Mormon faith. Advisers now say that was too late to answer voter skepticism.
This time, Romney is tackling an enormous weakness head-on at the outset of his campaign for president: a health care overhaul that he signed into law as Massachusetts governor and that became a model for President Barack Obama’s national measure.
Conservatives loathe both, and Romney will seek to allay their concerns in a speech he’ll deliver Thursday in Michigan, a state that’s an important part of his GOP presidential race.
“Unfortunately, with the passage of Obamacare last year, the president and the Congress took a wrong turn,” Romney said in a column appearing Thursday in USA Today that previewed his remarks.
Aides said Romney won’t apologize for his role in the Massachusetts law, which was enacted five years ago, but instead offer a strong defense of it.
They said he will make clear that he’s opposed to Obama’s federal approach to health care. And, they said, he plans to argue that Republicans should repeal the law before most of its components take effect and replace the law with an alternative that gives states more of a say in the public’s health care options.
It’s questionable how much of the speech will be new. Romney has spent months trying to explain his position and it’s not clear Thursday’s presentation will sway opinions.
In advance of his talk, the head of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida, accused the former Massachusetts governor of flip-flopping on the issue.
“What I think is unfortunate about Mitt Romney is that he doesn’t even know who he is,” Wasserman-Schultz said in an appearance Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” She accused Romney of having “no convictions,” saying he refuses to stand behind a health care program he authored in Massachusetts that is very similar to Obama’s health care overhaul.
Wasserman-Schultz said she didn’t think voters in next year’s presidential election would be interested in supporting “someone who has no convictions.”
The health care issue is one of Romney’s biggest hurdles as he seeks to win over conservatives who hold much power in choosing the GOP presidential nominee. They already view him skeptically because of his record of reversals on some social issues and because of his Mormon faith.
It won’t be easy for Romney to shake the ghost of health care – no matter what he says Thursday.
The public’s angst over the federal law has shown no sign of fading. An Associated Press-GfK poll in March found 82 percent of Republicans oppose the plan.
During Romney’s tour to promote his book “No Apology,” a woman interrupted one appearance to share her frustrations with the Massachusetts plan.
Donors regularly want to hear Romney describe his political strategy for dealing with his vulnerability on health care before they hand over checks.
At a foreign policy speech earlier this year in Las Vegas, a doctor in the audience pressed Romney on the health care law, forcing him to deviate from his preferred message. And Democrats, including Obama, are more than happy to praise Romney’s work on the issue.
Like the federal law, the Massachusetts plan requires individuals to buy health insurance and imposes tax penalties on those who don’t. Both plans penalize small businesses above a certain size that don’t provide coverage to their employees. Both rely on new taxes for some of the financing.
Since Congress approved the national health overhaul a year ago, Romney has struggled to answer criticism of his role in the Massachusetts plan and, despite the obvious similarities, has sought to explain how it differs from Obama’s. He also has talked up its benefits; Massachusetts has succeeded in raising the number of insured residents to 97 percent. He doesn’t mention that the cost has strained the state treasury.
“It is too early to write a definitive evaluation of the Massachusetts reform,” Romney wrote in his 2010 book.
In New Hampshire in March, Romney made a states’ rights argument and noted there are things he would change about the Massachusetts law.
And in Las Vegas a few weeks later, he tried deflect Obama’s praise, saying: “He does me the great favor of saying that I was the inspiration of his plan. If that’s the case, why didn’t you call me?”
Thursday’s speech – in both the timing and the content – is an indication of just how much Romney’s second bid is informed by his missteps four years ago.
He spent months dogged by questions about his Mormon faith. Aides now acknowledge he never fully answered voter concerns in the yearlong run-up to the Iowa caucuses.
Just weeks before them, he delivered what aides now call “The Mormon Speech.” But after much buildup, the speech failed to undo months of a whisper campaign that suggested Mormons are not Christian.
This time, Romney’s advisers suggested that he deliver a health care policy speech early and get past it, even before he launches a full-fledged campaign and weeks before he participates in his first presidential debate.
An explanation absent an apology may not be enough to satisfy critics, including Republicans who may run against him and use health care to bludgeon him.
“He has to say either ‘I love it,’ ‘I hate it,’ or, ‘Hey, I tried it, it didn’t work and that’s why I would say to you, let’s not do it nationally,'” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a potential rival, said recently.
Romney finds himself in a position that’s similar to the one Hillary Rodham Clinton found herself in during the Democratic presidential primary in 2008 over her vote to authorize the war in Iraq.
Liberals dogged her with questions about that 2002 vote; she refused to apologize, though she made several attempts to explain her thinking. Still, Clinton was never able to convince liberals that her position was not disqualifying.
Romney will spend the next months trying to convince conservatives of the same.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)