Romney shifts campaign into high gear

Mitt Romney showed signs Monday that his presidential exploratory campaign will soon become an official bid, scheduling his first trip to an important early voting state and announcing a speech to address his biggest political liability.

The former Massachusetts governor will talk about healthcare reform at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on Thursday, providing Romney with his best platform so far to address the healthcare reforms he signed during his time in office.

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Romney will look to explain those reforms, which have come under attack by conservatives who compare them to President Obama's healthcare law, while also outlining proposals to "repeal and replace" Obama's reforms.

And, in another sign that Romney's dormant campaign is finally going into motion, the governor scheduled his first trip to Iowa, which hosts the first caucus in the GOP nominating process.

Romney will visit Des Moines on May 27, a trip that comes at a far later date in the 2012 cycle than his initial visit during the 2008 campaign. A number of other GOP contenders, notably former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), have already visited the state many times over, suggesting that Romney might not be making as aggressive a play for Iowa in this cycle as he had during his last attempt.

But the more pressing issue before Romney is his speech on Thursday.

His presentation at the U-M's cardiovascular center will address what many consider to be his Achilles’ heel in the crowded race for the Republican nomination.

The idea behind Romney's speech is to address his healthcare plan before the campaign begins in earnest, and before Romney has participated in a single debate, according to a source.

Whereas Romney waited until just before the 2008 Iowa caucuses to deliver a major speech on his religion, which had been one of his biggest political problems in that campaign, Romney's advisers believe it behooves the former governor to tackle the healthcare issue earlier and more aggressively — and to lay out his own healthcare plan before any other Republican candidate has done so.

The main focus of the speech won't necessarily be his healthcare plan, but Romney will look to draw contrasts between the Massachusetts plan and Obama's. Romney's advisers said the speech looks to make the former governor indistinguishable from any other GOP contender.

Conservatives have decried the Massachusetts healthcare reform law as "RomneyCare" for its similarities to Obama's healthcare law, specifically its requirement that each individual buy insurance or face a penalty (the so-called "individual mandate").

Obama and his advisers have gleefully traded on the association, mockingly thanking Romney for the idea that inspired their own plan. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a leading conservative figure, has demanded that Romney repudiate his previous reforms.

To date, Romney has stood by his efforts to expand coverage as governor, though he says he has regrets about certain provisions (he hasn't specified which). When put on the spot in political settings, Romney explains that if Obama relied so much on the Massachusetts plan as a model, then Obama should have called Romney to ask for input on the federal healthcare law.

Romney's speech will lay out five planks that encompass his 2012 campaign's position on healthcare, among them a plan to reduce medical malpractice lawsuits and one to allow tax deductions for individuals who buy their own health insurance. But another goal is to "make healthcare more like a consumer market and less like a government program" — a not-so-subtle jab at Obama's reforms.

The speech has been framed by political observers as a major moment in Romney's nascent 2012 effort, and he's traveling to friendly territory to make his case.

Romney was raised in Michigan, where his father, George Romney, served three terms as a Republican governor. Romney announced his 2008 presidential bid there and won the primary with nearly 39 percent of the vote. Republicans enjoyed statewide success in Michigan last fall, and are hoping to turn it into more of a battleground in 2012 than it's been in past cycles.

The U-M campus isn't known as the most hospitable location for Republicans, though. Groups of undergraduates and law students protested their Republican commencement speakers this year, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), respectively.

Romney will also sit down for a series of meetings during his time in Michigan, though his aides wouldn't detail with whom he's meeting.