CHICAGO — Mitt Romney has a problem with Obamacare. It looks a lot like Romneycare. The prospective Republican presidential candidate's vulnerability on the issue was evident this week, when he was interrupted during a tour for his new book by a woman upset with the Massachusetts health care law Romney signed as governor in 2006. That law has some of the same core features as the federal law President Barack Obama, a Democrat, signed on Tuesday.
And that's creating an uncomfortable straddle for Romney as his party makes attacking the new health care law its main message this midterm year.
"We are up to here with Republicans not being conservative enough," Dr. Sharon Sikora, a local dentist, said as she raised her hand over her head. "And with all due respect, governor, your health care in Massachusetts is not the be-all and end-all, and there are significant problems with that, and I wouldn't embrace that today, either."
Romney conceded the Massachusetts plan "isn't perfect" and is "a work in progress," but he put part of the blame on Democrats who overrode vetoes he believes would have improved the original plan.
And then, instead of dissociating himself from the plan as he did during his 2008 White House race, Romney complained the president didn't tap his expertise while crafting the federal measure.
"No one came to talk to me," Romney said. "It's very clear that people thought they had the answer without getting the benefit of the experiment."
Like the new federal law, the Massachusetts plan requires individuals to buy health insurance and imposes tax penalties on those who don't. Both plans penalize small businesses above a certain size that don't provide coverage to their employees. And both rely on new taxes for some of their financing.
"The Massachusetts plan serves as a template for federal reform," said Richard Powers, spokesman for the state agency that sets standards for the mandatory private insurance plans individuals must buy. Obama's plan "didn't replicate everything that we have here, but it certainly drew from the important principles of it."
Massachusetts has succeeded in raising the amount of insured residents to 97 percent, but the cost has strained the state treasury. Powers' agency reported that 68 percent of the 407,000 who are newly insured got a partial or full subsidy for their coverage.
And since some of that subsidy money came from the federal government in the form of a Medicaid waiver, the state treasurer recently asked who was going to provide similar funding on the national level for Obama's plan.
The Club for Growth, which raises campaign money for economic conservative candidates, ripped Romney this month when he declared the Massachusetts program "the ultimate conservative plan" because it requires individual responsibility. One of the group's leaders said that if Romney believed that, "he's in the wrong party." Conservative columnists have been similarly critical.
The former governor dismisses his critics, saying, "You do what you think is right, and if people decide that that's not something they're happy with, so be it." Besides, he said, he hasn't decided whether to run for president again.
Romney criticized the Obama law in a blistering posting on the conservative National Review's Web site just hours after the House passed the bill late Sunday. But, notably, he attacked the process more than the substance.
"America has just witnessed an unconscionable abuse of power," he wrote, complaining that Obama used extreme tactics to pass a bill without any Republican support. "For these reasons and more, the act should be repealed." Alternatively, he suggested starving it of money.
Romney reiterated his position after signing nearly 1,000 copies of his book at a store near his vacation home in San Diego early this week.
"I like what we have in Massachusetts, despite some flaws," Romney said. "But what I see in Obamacare is a very different piece of legislation – and one that followed a very different track. In our case, our bill was carried out in a bipartisan basis."
Political analysts expect his rivals to gloss over such distinctions – and attack the general similarities – in any future campaign.
"He's explaining the differences between Massachusetts and Washington in some very subtle and complex ways, and politics is about simple truths – particularly in party primaries," said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
Berry noted that both laws require that people get insurance coverage, and both impose new taxes and penalties – "anathema to mainstream Republicanism. And both involve a significant expansion of government. So, on all those counts, Mitt Romney is vulnerable."