By Elise Viebeck - 08/25/12 10:00 AM EDT
Mitt Romney is invoking his Massachusetts healthcare law in the lead-up to the Republican convention, alarming conservatives who argue it’s a losing issue for his campaign.
Romney's new willingness to talk about the issue could be a sign that he thinks the Massachusetts law could help him in November.
"My healthcare plan I put in place in my state has everyone insured," Romney told a CBS reporter on Thursday. In a second interview, he called the law an "important accomplishment" that is "working, by and large, pretty well."
The convention in Tampa, which serves as a showcase for Romney’s career in business and politics, will almost certainly have to address the Massachusetts law in some way.
"He'll have to strike a delicate balance on the Massachusetts law," said Potomac Strategy Group President Matt Mackowiak.
"It's in his nature to defend something that he signed, but it's not a winning issue. … The truth is, he doesn't need to go there."
The Massachusetts law contained the same central elements as the federal healthcare reform plan, most notably an individual mandate to have health insurance.
Conservatives argue the federal mandate is a breathtaking expansion of federal power, and say Romney neutralizes criticism of the Affordable Care Act and, by extension, Obama, when he touts a law with a similar requirement.
The concern was central to arguments against Romney during the GOP primaries, but faded from view until August 8, when a Romney spokeswoman volunteered praise for the state law during a television interview.
"There are a lot of people losing their jobs and losing their healthcare in President Obama's economy," Andrea Saul told Fox News. "If people had been in Massachusetts, under Gov. Romney's healthcare plan, they would have had healthcare."
The backlash from conservative commentators was swift.
"Andrea Saul just gave the Obama campaign a big, fat, wet, kiss," said radio host Laura Ingraham. Author Ann Coulter called Saul a "moron." And Erick Erickson, who manages the blog site RedState, tweeted the comments may be remembered as "the moment Mitt Romney lost the election."
"The concern among conservatives is that there will be some kind of 'Read my lips' moment with Romney and healthcare," said Republican strategist Keith Appell.
The famous remark refers to a promise by then-candidate George H. W. Bush not to raise taxes. Bush ultimately did raise taxes in the White House.
"Since the primaries began, Romney has said he is against ‘Obamacare,’ that he's pro-life and pro-Second Amendment," Appell said.
"Those statements are what people are staking their activity and engagement on. It's not Romney's record that they're staking it on."
Romney's recent healthcare comments recall his performance during primary debates, when, under fire from opponents about the Massachusetts system, he expressed pride in "caring about people."
"We have less than 1 percent of our kids [in Massachusetts] who are uninsured," Romney told Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) in an October 2011 debate. "You have a million kids."
Several months later, Romney said he would be most prepared to debate Obama as a result of his experiences dealing with healthcare.
"I will be able to show that I have a passionate concern for people in this country," he told a debate audience in January.
Mackowiak wondered whether Romney's recent comments reflect a desire to appear more relatable to voters. Polls show that Obama leads Romney in likability.
"They're trying to show compassion," Mackowiak said of Romney's campaign.
"The problem is, the play for independents will be on the economy and the direction of the country … Romney may not want to appear as a sort of 'careless Republican,' but there are other ways to do that."