By James Hohmann
Mitt Romney repeatedly called for the repeal of "Obamacare" in a Saturday night speech to New Hampshire Republicans, even as the former Massachusetts governor admitted his own state's health care program "wasn't perfect."
"Some things worked, some things didn't, and some things I'd change," he said of the Massachusetts plan he authored, without offering specifics.
In his first public appearance in the first-in-the-nation primary state since last October, the all-but-declared presidential candidate said that nothing the president has done during his first two years in office was "more misguided and egregious than Obamacare."
"Obamacare is bad law constitutionally, bad policy, and it is bad for America's families," Romney said. "The federal government isn't the answer for running health care any more than it's the answer for running Amtrak or the Post Office."
Even though an individual mandate requiring coverage is the hallmark of both the Massachusetts law and the president's plan -- what critics respectively have dubbed "Romneycare" and "Obamacare" -- Romney sought to draw a distinction between the two.
"Our approach was a state plan intended to address problems that were in many ways unique to Massachusetts," he said. "What we did there as Republicans and Democrats was what the Constitution intended for states to do -- we were one of the laboratories of democracy."
"One thing I would never do is to usurp the constitutional power of states with a one-size-fits-all federal takeover," he added.
In his remarks, Romney three times called for "Obamacare" to be rolled back, saying at one point, "I would repeal Obamacare, if I were ever in a position to do so."
Health care is considered Romney's most significant political vulnerability. In his new book, for example, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee trashes "Romneycare" as "socialized medicine" that increased costs and reduced the quality of care.
He spoke with the aid of a teleprompter to about 300 conservative activists for the Carroll County Lincoln Day dinner at an out-of-the-way ski resort in this less-populous northern part of the Granite State.
Consultants, warning that the issue could doom Romney's candidacy, have urged him to give a speech like the one he did Saturday addressing the issue head on.
The Obama White House and its Democratic allies have made mischief recently by saying their unpopular health law was partly inspired by Romney's in Massachusetts. Romney pushed back at that Saturday with humor.
"You may have noticed that the president and his people spend more time talking about me and Massachusetts health care than 'Entertainment Tonight' spends talking about Charlie Sheen," he said.
Romney's advisers have struggled with how to tackle the touchy subject, especially since opposition to Obama's health care law galvanized much of the energy that led to Republican victories last fall.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, Romney did not address his own Massachusetts law and derided the federal "takeover" of health care only in passing.
More recently, a Romney spokesman said the governor is "proud of what he accomplished for Massachusetts in getting everyone covered."
In his Saturday night speech, he also reiterated, as he has before, that he never suggested imposing the Massachusetts plan on every other state. He also described the health care law as a new entitlement that stands alongside Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.
The policy-heavy speech had plenty of hat tips toward the importance of New Hampshire.
Romney started with an anecdote from being out on the lake at the home he owns in Wolfeboro and spoke about visiting a business incubator in Manchester a few weeks ago.
"We liked New Hampshire so much, we may just decide to play a double header," he said, referring to his second-place finish to John McCain in 2008.
Romney also made an apparent dig at his potential rival Huckabee, who recently said that Obama will be hard to beat next year, in part because he has the perks of incumbency (including Air Force One).
"Every candidate is treated the same, no matter how important they may think they are," Romney told the crowd. "It doesn't matter if they land on Air Force One or show up in their Chevrolet."
Romney talked little about his experience as Massachusetts' governor, except in reference to the health care law he helped enact. Otherwise, he couched much of his speech around his background as a management consultant in the private sector.
That explains why the lion's share of Romney's speech focused on the economy. Despite good jobs numbers Friday, he blamed Obama for delaying the recovery. He called the weak economy "a moral problem" that Obama's made worse.
"The consequence is soaring numbers of Americans enduring unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies," he said. "This is the Obama Misery Index, and it is at a record high. It's going to take more than new rhetoric to put Americans back to work--it's going to take a new president."
He claimed that American companies might be holding as much as a trillion dollars overseas, unwilling to bring it back because of the taxes they'd need to pay. He said letting companies bring the money to the U.S. would created "hundreds of thousands--or even millions--of good, permanent, private sector jobs."
As a sign of how seriously Democrats take Romney, the Democratic National Committee sent a press release fact checking his statements and questioning his record as Massachusetts governor. The DNC noted that Romney wrote in his book that a stimulus package was needed in late 2008. The release also noted that many taxpayers have seen their rates fall under Obama.
Many in the room made clear they will support Romney, but others were clearly undecided.
The state's freshman senator, Kelly Ayotte, said Romney is popular and has a strong base of support in the state. But, she quickly added, no one can take the state for granted.
"It's so early that they haven't made up their minds," she said of the state's Republican activists, suggesting that she might endorse someone after meeting with all the candidates. "People will still scrutinize him."
Romney also proposed putting in place a limit on how much the federal government can spend each year as a percentage of gross domestic product. He didn't offer a specific target, but he noted that government spending now accounts for 25 percent and it has historically ranged between 18 to 20 percent.
The first policy area that Romney covered in his remarks was foreign policy, and he ended with an exhortation of American Exceptionalism. He faulted the Obama administration for being caught off guard by the turmoil in the Middle East this winter and not having a "discernible foreign policy."
"The president and his team, they look like deer in the headlights. Instead of leading the world, the President has been tiptoeing behind the Europeans," he said. "I don't apologize for America because I believe in America."
Earlier in the evening, Ann Romney took the stage with her necktie-less husband, saying before his speech that she's pushing him to jump into the race.
"It is true I'm the one who is encouraging Mitt to think about running," she said.
Romney, in turn, said his wife of 42 years has "really overcome" multiple sclerosis "miraculously." When he said she's also overcome breast cancer, the pair both got a standing ovation.