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Analysis: Romney makes tough choice on health care

Associated Press | 5/18/2011, 1:04 a.m.

But Romney himself noted that it is “actually true in most states” that people receive free treatment in emergency rooms.

Analysts and political strategists were skeptical.

“Romney trotted out the federalism argument once again, calling Obamacare a ‘power grab,’” wrote Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger at The Washington Post. “But conservatives for nearly two years have been arguing that NO government should require individuals to purchase something they don't want.”

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who also is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, criticized Romney for trying “to institute the precursor to national socialized medicine.”

“Both Romneycare and Obamacare infringe upon individual freedom,” Santorum said.

Even some of Romney’s closest friends seem unmoved. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said Romney “had admirable goals of making private health insurance more affordable, but the Massachusetts plan didn't work.”

DeMint had a kinder tone two months ago. He told The Hill newspaper: “One of the reasons I endorsed Romney (in 2008) is his attempts to make private health insurance available at affordable prices. ... He started with some good ideas that were essentially hijacked by the Democrat legislature.”

Before Romney spoke last Thursday, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page - it is influential with many conservatives - wrote that “if he does not change his message” on the Massachusetts health law, “he might as well try to knock off Joe Biden and get on the Obama ticket.”

But changing his message would invite renewed charges that Romney lacks convictions and authenticity.

In his successful 2002 gubernatorial race, and his unsuccessful 1994 bid to unseat liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., Romney took stands he since has renounced. Abortion should be safe and legal, he said at the time, and he vowed to be a stronger advocate for gay rights than was Kennedy. He supported gun control measures and distanced himself from Ronald Reagan.

Romney says he changed his views on those topics after periods of serious re-examination. Still, they leave him open to attacks.

“The big problem for Mitt Romney is he has a conviction problem,” said Neera Tanden, a top adviser to President Bill Clinton and to his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, when she was a senator and a presidential candidate. Romney’s resume is strong, Tanden said, “but voters don't know what he stands for.”

Turning his back on his landmark Massachusetts health law would exacerbate that problem. Romney said last week that he is standing by the Massachusetts law “despite the fact it’s gone from being seen as an asset to being seen as a liability politically.”

Romney has picked his battle. The outcome may determine whether he is the Republican who will challenge Obama next year.

Charles Babington covers national politics for The Associated Press.