The most forceful attack on Mitt Romney’s healthcare record may have come too late to make a difference in the Republican presidential race.
Although Romney has faced questions and skepticism about healthcare throughout the campaign, none of his rivals mounted the kind of aggressive, sustained indictment that former Sen. Rick Santorum (Penn.) launched into during Thursday night’s debate.
“It was as deep as any of the criticism Gov. Romney has faced from any of the other candidates since the day he got into the race,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden, who is a Romney supporter.
“I think it’s kind of clear what the prospects are for further political attacks,” Madden said.
Santorum insisted Thursday that the Massachusetts healthcare law is a “top-down, government run” system just like President Obama’s. And he said it’s simply not good enough for Romney to keep falling back on the difference between state and federal laws.
“Your mandate is no different than Barack ObamaBarack ObamaConway contradicts White House statement on crowd size in tweet Egypt's leader, Trump speak A closer look at McCain's proposed defense budget MORE’s mandate,” Santorum charged. “It is the same mandate.”
It was the first time Romney seemed flustered by the issue, and his response didn’t sit well with conservatives. As Santorum pressed further into a detailed attack on the Massachusetts healthcare law, Romney shot back that the issue is “not worth getting angry about.”
But anger over Obama’s healthcare law is very real on the right, where many see similarities between that law and the one Romney signed as Massachusetts governor. Washington Examiner columnist Philip Klein called Romney’s brush-off “a dagger in the back of conservatives” and a “clear reminder” of why they’ve been hesitant to get behind Romney.
The reminder, however, might have come too late. And the weaker attacks from Romney’s other rivals probably didn’t help. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty made waves early in the primary season by promising a harsh attack on the similarities between Romney’s and Obama’s healthcare laws, but then walked away from the issue during debates.
So many false starts could make it hard for a healthcare attack to break through now, Republican consultant Ron Bonjean said.
"It is really tough to make healthcare attacks stick on Romney because it feels as if it is a tired issue after 19 debates,” he said. “While this may be new to some who haven't paid attention, it feels worn out to the media who have had a microscope on the primaries."