WASHINGTON — When Mitt Romney spoke to a convention of conservatives here Friday, he all but ignored the topic that haunts his expected bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination: His past embrace of a health insurance mandate like the one his fellow Republicans now deride as "Obamacare."
Romney mentioned health care only once Friday in his speech before the Conservative Political Action convention — he listed it among Obama administration policies that he scorned as "a European-style solution to an American problem."
Trouble is, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed legislation in 2006 requiring most people in the state to obtain health insurance. Many analysts see that as a model for Obama's national health care law and its requirement that most people obtain health coverage by 2014. Republicans fiercely oppose it.
"I like mandates. The mandates work," Romney said when seeking the presidency in 2008.
Romney's among the best-known, best-financed and best-organized potential candidates, and he's trying to position himself as a business-friendly conservative.
But he's haunted by his health-care shadow.
Romney's usual defense is that while states should have the option to impose such mandates, Washington shouldn't. But he didn't even address the point on Friday.
Afterward, many in the audience said that Romney's failure to address health care will hurt him with conservatives, who are crucial to winning a Republican presidential nomination.
"There are too many people against it," said Dave Patterson, a New Albany, Ind., real estate broker.
"He's got an image problem, and he needed to come out and apologize, say he made a mistake," added Bernie Rollins, a Wilmington, N.C., business owner.
"The health care plan he supported in Massachusetts is eerily similar to Obamacare," said Ed Failor, the president of Iowans for Tax Relief, a conservative group.
Romney got a warm but restrained reaction as he bashed Obama in his 20-minute speech. He ripped Obama's stewardship of the economy "a moral tragedy of epic proportion." He called the job fairs and unemployment lines "President Obama's Hoovervilles." He coined what he called the "Obama misery index" of high unemployment, home foreclosures and bankruptcies.
Obama, Romney said, is a liberal who had a sudden post-November election conversion to become a centrist — but don't buy it, Romney said.
"What's next?" he said to cheers. "Let them eat cake? Excuse me. Let them eat organic cake."
His 2008 White House bid failed in no small part because he couldn't convince conservatives that he was truly one of them. Since then, he's traveled the nation to champion their causes, donating time and money to their campaigns. He's among the most popular potential candidates in national polls on the still-evolving 2012 GOP presidential field, as well as the narrow leader in cash on hand. Still, lurking behind all that is the health care problem.
"If you want a liberal albatross to put around Romney's neck, this is it," said Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social science at Boston University.
Romney's camp didn't respond to requests for comment.
Nate Gunderson, who manages MittRomneyCentral.com, a website that promotes the candidate, acknowledges that, "This is a problem, but we'll be trying to correct the record." Their point of emphasis: Romney favors allowing states to determine what's best for their residents, and opposes Washington telling them what to do.
It's uncertain how this states-rights argument will play among conservatives.
Whalen calls the states' rights argument the "Jefferson Davis approach, which is somewhat idiotic."
Romney tries to nuance his stand on the mandate. In January 2008, during a New Hampshire Republican debate, he defended the health care mandate in his state, but added, "I would not mandate at the federal level that every state do what we do."
Last week, he told ABC's "Good Morning America" that the federal health care law "is a very bad piece of legislation."
But, he added, "I'm not going to apologize for the rights of states to craft plans on a bipartisan basis that they think will help their people."
Pressed on whether he'd apologize for the mandate, Romney said, "Of course not. I'm not apologizing for it."
Romney's preparation for 2012 so far has largely been outside the public spotlight. He donated money to hundreds of candidates last year. In January, he visited Afghanistan and the Middle East to burnish his foreign-policy credentials.
Last week, he was reported to be in Boston and New Hampshire, meeting privately with supporters and fundraisers, and he's been promoting the paperback version of his book "No Apology." On Feb. 1, Romney read a Top 10 list on "Late Night with David Letterman" and appeared with his wife, Ann, on "The View." He's scheduled to speak on March 5 in New Hampshire at the Carroll County Lincoln Day dinner.
But GOP activists say he's been nearly invisible in Iowa and South Carolina, two early nominating states he lost in 2008. And he still needs to overcome some of the questions that dogged him then.
Romney was sympathetic to abortion rights and gay rights when he ran for governor, but turned sharply against both when he ran for president. There also have been questions about whether sizeable blocs of voters will reject him because of his Mormon faith.
"If you're looking for black and white answers, you're not going to get them from Mitt Romney," said Craig Robinson, the founder and editor of the Iowa Republican, a partisan newsletter. He said Romney made only two visits to the nation's first caucus state last year, and in both cases, "he was like an after-dinner speaker. It was all personality," and little substance.
"He has a lot of good qualities, a lot of executive experience. But I don't know much about a campaign this time," added Steve Scheffler, the president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition.
Activists in South Carolina, the nation's first Southern primary, also have seen little of Romney.
David Woodard, a Clemson, S.C., GOP consultant, said that during the last campaign cycle, he had breakfast regularly with Romney. This time, nothing yet.
And, Woodard finds, "people want to talk about the new guys. I think he's going to have a real hard time here."
One place he should find friends is New Hampshire. The University of New Hampshire Survey Center has consistently found his favorable ratings among likely Republican voters above 70 percent.
They know his Massachusetts record and like it. A lot of those center-right voters chose Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008, but this time, the field seems clear for Romney, said Andrew Smith, the survey center's director.
Even this bright spot poses a problem: The same moderate image that boosts Romney in New Hampshire could poison him with conservatives elsewhere.
Lisa Van Riper, a Greenville, S.C., Republican activist, likes Romney and thinks his changes of position on various issues show an ability to engage in "thoughtful and sincere reflection." But she also understands that he may have an uphill climb on health care with some people.
"I'm afraid in a primary, the Republican base may not be as open to a nuanced position," she said, "between federally mandated and state-mandated health care reform."
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