Will Romney Be Able to Dodge Healthcare Flip-Flopper Label?

As Romney announces his White House bid, he'll have to explain his healthcare plan.

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The Republican frontrunner in the 2012 race for the White House is about to make it official. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will announce his candidacy Thursday from a farm in New Hampshire, an early voting state where he enjoys high ballot support and name recognition. This will be Romney's second run for the White House, and he starts with a strong organization and lots of cash. But he faces a difficult task: shifting the issue that seems to define him away from healthcare and towards the economy.

As governor, Romney signed into law a statewide healthcare plan in Massachusetts that looks a lot like the one Obama signed—right down to its individual mandate requiring everyone to have health insurance—and which Republicans have vowed to undo. While he now swears he will repeal Obamacare on day one of his presidency, Democrats and some GOP candidates will pummel him with the label "flip-flopper." But not just because of healthcare. He's switched his views to take a more conservative approach to gun rights, gay rights, and abortion—supporting abortion rights while campaigning for governor and opposing them during the 2008 presidential campaign. Healthcare, his opponents argue, reinforces this label.

Romney's Massachusetts plan is a departure from the fundamental Republican belief in a limited role for government. "The critique will be 'he didn't understand my concerns about individual freedom relative to the government' or 'the government take over implies things that scare me,'" says Mike Franc, vice president of government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "No one running in the Republican primary wants to be on the wrong end of the size and scope of government debate." It also suggests Romney has been left behind by the GOP on the issue of healthcare. "The whole Republican Party was in favor of the individual mandate as an alternative to a single payer plan," says Dennis Goldford, politics professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and co-author of The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: the Making of a Media Event. Then "the party ran away. And that's what Romney is trying to deal with there." [Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]

Romney will face trouble in Iowa, where social conservatives and evangelicals aren't likely to forgive his support of an individual mandate and where they remain suspicious of his Mormon background. "He has to do a better job convincing conservatives that he is one of them," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "He is the defacto frontrunner but he's also a frail frontrunner." And with his support of the Massachusetts healthcare plan, "this isn't the kind of thing where you give a speech and it suddenly goes away." [See a slide show of who's in and who's out in the GOP 2012 primary.]

But as much as the healthcare issue will be a problem for Romney's candidacy, he still has ways to work around it, experts say. He has already started to hammer home the difference between state and national government and convince voters that the healthcare plan he supported in Massachusetts doesn't necessarily work on the federal level. "He's embraced what happened in Massachusetts and a lot of that gets back to the state versus federal allocation of power," says Franc. "He has to keep discussion of what he did in those terms: it's a much, much different proposition for the federal government to go down the path of a mandate, for example, than a state government. Then explain why."

Romney is already trying to explain the difference to the public. "What we did was to solve a very serious need that existed in our state," he told NBC earlier this week. "If I become president, I will repeal Obamacare on the first day I'm in office. My bill was 70 pages. His bill is 2,700 pages. In those extra 2,630 pages he's doing a lot of stuff that is just devastating to the healthcare system in this country." But that difference isn't as clear to rank and file Republicans and conservatives, says Rothenberg. "They are going to constantly ask him about that, force him to give the same explanation over again and they probably won't be entirely convinced." [Read Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin leading 2012 GOP field.]