WASHINGTON -- It was supposed to be the catacomb for his presidential ambitions, a policy so poisonous for Republican voters that he'd have to abandon it in order to win their support. But months into his second run for the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney has been surprisingly unhindered by the health care policy he passed as governor of Massachusetts, leaving some seasoned political observers utterly befuddled.
"Despite 'Obamneycare,' Mitt is back in command," read an editorial Monday by Timothy Carney in the Washington Examiner.
"[F]or someone who still probably stands a 50%-50% chance of being the Republican Party's presidential nominee, Mitt Romney had it relatively easy so far," concluded MNSBC's First Read.
"I have spent more than a year predicting the electoral demise of Mitt Romney," wrote Jonathan Chait Monday in New York Magazine. "Here is a Mormon, once fervently pro-choice candidate running to lead an electorate whipped into a frenzied belief that Barack Obama’s health-care plan poses the most dire threat to liberty in American history, having imposed virtually the same plan in Massachusetts himself... And yet here he is, poised to assume the Republican nomination."
Campaigns can be unscripted affairs, with sideshow issues (see: Sarah Palin's clothing purchases) often trumping substantive matter. But the extent to which Romney's supposedly campaign-crippling health care law hasn't bitten his candidacy has been, perhaps, the defining feature of the still-early primary. And it symbolizes what has so far been a fortuitous few months for the Massachusetts Republican.
The candidate who coined the term Obamneycare -- Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- got the yips when asked to challenge Romney during a prime-time debate. He subsequently fell out of the race and endorsed his bete noire, further neutralizing the argument that Romneycare is a major liability.
Since then, circumstances for Romney have grown only brighter. After being tarred for months for supporting a mandate for individuals to purchase health insurance coverage, he got to sit back and watch as his top competitor for the nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, was subjected to attacks over a mandate of his own. And for a score of primary voters, a never enacted executive order that required sixth-grade girls in Texas to receive the HPV vaccine has mattered more than the compulsory health care coverage in Massachusetts.
"Rick Perry has become the front runner," said Larry Farnsworth, one-time press secretary to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "As Governor, he unilaterally made a health care decision for millions of girls. That’s a far more egregious act to conservatives than a Republican Governor of a blue state working with a liberal legislature. If Mitt Romney had been Governor of Texas rather than Massachusetts, I’m quite sure his health care plan would be more acceptable to conservatives."
For the Romney campaign, the relative scarcity of health care-related damage isn't an invitation to coast. But advisers close to the governor argue that the extent to which the governor's law would be an albatross around his neck was always a touch overstated.
"It will be AN issue," emailed Kevin Madden, a Republican consultant who advises the governor and served as his chief spokesman during the 2008 campaign, "but it won't be THE issue."
"Presidential campaigns are still, fundamentally, contests about the future," he added. "The Massachusetts health care issue will always be part of the conversation--the conversation between candidates and the conversation with voters. But, more important will be the contest to demonstrate a candidate has a plan to repeal and remedy the worst aspects of Obamacare and what that candidate's vision is going forward with regard to lowering health care costs, improving the quality of care and improving access. In that regard, Governor Romney has performed well."
Public polling data has long suggested that trashing President Obama's health care law bears political fruit. The most recent Kaiser Foundation survey in September, for example, showed just 14 percent of Republicans were willing to rate the president's health law favorably, while three out of four (76 percent) rated it unfavorably (including 56 percent who are very unfavorable). Among Tea Party Republicans, that opposition to Obamacare is nearly monolithic, with 87 percent rating it unfavorably, including 75 percent who are very unfavorable.
The problem is in tying Romneycare to Obamacare. A June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked the national sample how they would react if they learned "that Mitt Romney opposes the current health care law signed into law by Barack Obama that institutes requiring nearly all Americans to either have or purchase health insurance, but as governor supported and signed into law a bill that had similar requirements for Massachusetts."
The net reaction was negative among Republicans, but only a third (33 percent) said the statement made them less favorable to Romney. Two-thirds either said the statement made them more favorable (20 percent) or made no difference (45 percent). Differences between Democrats and Republicans on this question were slight. Among Republicans in the poll, Romney's opposition to Obama's health reform law appears to trump his support for a law with "similar requirements" in Massachusetts. A similar dynamic may be playing out now among likely Republican primary voters when they hear Romney respond to attacks on the Massachusetts law in debates.
And yet, for all the difficulty with prosecuting the case that Romneycare equals Obamacare, there is evidence suggesting that the skepticism over the Massachusetts governor's health care law is already baked into the GOP voter's mindset. Base voters, after all, haven't exactly flocked to Romney's candidacy, choosing instead to attach their hopes to others in the field or politicians who haven't entered the race.
"He can't get above 20 percent of the GOP field because 80 percent of Republicans see him for the chameleon he is," said Craig Shirley, a Reagan historian and adviser to conservative organizations. "Romney will probably never be acceptable to the conservatives who dominate the party. This is not to say they won't hold their nose and vote for him but this will be a tough sell for Romney."
As Shirley and others see it, time isn't on Romney's side. As the actual primaries approach, focus on his health care law will likely become vogue again, in part because the conservative infrastructure, which has invested heavily in demonizing Obamacare, won't be thrilled to see that year-long case neutralized.
"I think Romneycare is still the elephant in the room and at some point should Romney turn out to be the nominee it would be a real liability in his ability to challenge the president. President Obama would thank Governor Romney for creating the intellectual basis for Obamacare," said Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, the conservative activist organization that has said it would devote resources to stopping Romney's nomination.
"If you look at what we have said about Mitt Romney... we are in fact trying to raise this issue because not only is it a fundamental flaw in his policy record, I think it is an albatross that makes him unable to beat Obama."
HuffPost's Mark Blumenthal contributed reporting.