Mitt’s backers: ‘RomneyCare’ overblown

Mitt Romney’s supporters on Capitol Hill are giving him political cover for the healthcare plan he signed into law as governor, even as his competitors for the GOP presidential nomination ramp up their attacks on “RomneyCare.” 

Romney’s healthcare reform initiative in Massachusetts is viewed as one of his biggest political liabilities going into the Republican primary, due to its similarities to President Obama’s healthcare overhaul.

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But leading conservatives, including supporters of Romney during his 2008 presidential run, argue that the Massachusetts plan isn’t a deal-breaker. 

“One of the reasons I endorsed Romney [in 2008] is his attempts to make private health insurance available at affordable prices,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), a GOP kingmaker. 

DeMint blames Democrats in the Massachusetts State Legislature for adding many of the features to Romney’s plan that many on the right decry. 

“It just depends on how he plays it. For me, I think he started with some good ideas that were essentially hijacked by the Democrat Legislature,” DeMint said.

Healthcare was not an Achilles’ heel for Romney in 2008. The difference between 2008 and 2011, of course, is the bitterly partisan battle on healthcare during the 111th Congress. 

Some Republicans acknowledged that “RomneyCare” could give the former governor some heartburn, but they claim it won’t torpedo his likely 2012 bid.

“It’s a hurdle, but I don’t think it’s a hurdle that can’t be overcome,” said one top conservative lawmaker who spoke on background.

“I think, in the end, we recognize that not every candidate has everything you want. Some candidates are weak on some issues and strong on others; there’s no perfect candidate out there,” added the Republican legislator, who backed one of Romney’s opponents three years ago.

Besides, Romney might face bigger challenges to snagging the nomination. A lawmaker who endorsed Romney in 2008 said Romney’s Mormon faith will be a bigger problem than healthcare.

“Voters are still raising it,” the lawmaker, who requested anonymity, said, expressing frustration that the issue hasn’t faded.

A spokesman for Romney did not comment for this article. 

Virtually all of the congressional Republicans asked by The Hill said it’s too early to say whether they would endorse Romney or any other candidate.

Romney snagged the most congressional endorsements in the 2008 GOP primary, edging out Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), respectively.

Many of Romney’s backers in 2008 are getting feelers from other possible Republican candidates seeking their support. For example, Georgia Republicans say that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is making calls to members for their endorsements.

Rep. Tom Price (R), the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee who represents Gingrich’s old district, endorsed Romney in the 2008 primary, but hasn’t decided whom he will back in 2012.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a 10-term lawmaker who endorsed Romney a few years ago, said he has not committed to a White House hopeful yet. (Rep. Phil Gingrey, another Georgia Republican who backed Romney in 2008, said last week he’s “all in” for Gingrich this time around.)

Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a 2008 Romney supporter who says he’s still a “big fan” of Romney’s, said healthcare will not be a major deal in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.

“I don’t think the healthcare bill has a high visibility in the state, but Gov. Romney does,” said Gregg, now a columnist for The Hill. 

Possible White House candidates clearly disagree with Gregg.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) wrote unfavorably of Romney’s plan in his new book, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) criticized it this month in testimony before Congress, mentioning Romney and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the same breath. Citing healthcare, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who is expected to run for president, told The Hill earlier this year that he can’t see Romney winning the Republican primary.

Former Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), a GOP campaign guru, said there’s plenty of opportunity for Romney to explain his work on healthcare reform. Romney should look to “differentiate” his attempt in Massachusetts from what Obama is implementing, Davis said, and explain that while Romney tried a “noble experiment” as governor, he would never replicate it nationally.

“I think he’s managed it pretty well,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a longtime Romney backer who will support the former governor again in 2012. “There’s a difference between the federal government usurping power than for [a state] to do what is its right to do.”

Meanwhile, Obama appears to be having some fun at Romney’s expense. Late last month the president thanked Romney for the ideas that inspired his own healthcare reforms — his biggest accomplishment, and one despised by conservatives, during his first two years in office.

“[I] agree with Mitt Romney, who recently said he’s proud of what he accomplished on healthcare in Massachusetts and supports giving states the power to determine their own healthcare solutions,” the president said in a speech to the National Governors Association.

A number of other prominent figures have declined to take shots at Romney. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said earlier this month that he didn’t think the Massachusetts healthcare plan would be a drag on Romney. And Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a leading Tea Party conservative who is mulling her own run for president, also passed on a chance to jab Romney. 

It is understandable why some congressional Republicans are keeping mum on Romney. Publicly criticizing him could boomerang on them, especially if he wins the nomination and/or the White House. 

In 2007, during the Democratic primary race, then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) famously said Obama was not ready to be president. McCain subsequently used those remarks in a campaign ad. 

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a Romney supporter last time around, said, “I wouldn’t write him off at all. We may end up with another lineup in which you’ve got a candidate who is a major turnoff on every other issue, which is what we had with John McCain ... If he’s up against a similar, negative personality, his support for a healthcare plan in Massachusetts is less important.”

Whatever the case, Romney’s status as putative front-runner in the Republican field means that his competitors for the nomination will still certainly use healthcare or any number of other issues to take him down a notch.

“Unfortunately, the 11th Commandment is repealed,” said Davis, referring to former President Reagan’s maxim regarding not speaking ill of fellow Republicans.

Update, 2:14 p.m.: A source close to DeMint emphasized that the South Carolina won't endorse Romney unless the former Massachusetts governor were to admit his health reform plan was mistaken.

"It's obvious Jim was just trying to be nice to the guy he backed over McCain, as many conservatives did in 2008," said the source. "But he would never consider backing Romney again unless he admits that his Massachusetts health care plan was a colossal mistake."

Bob Cusack contributed to this report.