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In the early months of the campaign, no issue is likely to dominate these discussions more than that of the similarities between Romney's health-reform plan in Massachusetts, which included a mandate that nearly all citizens buy health insurance, and the national plan pushed by Obama and despised by the GOP rank and file. Squaring this circle won't be easy. In a mid-November conference call with campaign donors, Romney argued that his reform did not raise taxes while Obama's did. It was a nuanced distinction, given the federal assistance that Romney depended on to pay for his state's plan. "I think it's kind of a cheap way out," says MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, a supporter of the Obama effort who advised Romney on health reform. "The only way we could do it without raising taxes was that the feds paid half the cost."
Romney also repeated the claim he has made since as far back as 2007: there is a big difference between a state-level mandate to purchase health insurance and a national one, which he considers both unconstitutional and unwise. "A one-size-fits-all national health care system is bound to fail," he said in August 2007 at a speech before the Florida Medical Association. "It ignores the very dramatic differences between states and relies on the Washington bureaucracy to manage." Such distinctions have already been rejected by some Tea Party leaders, but Romney aides say that health care was also an issue in the 2008 Republican primary debates. "We understand that there is more heat on the issue now because of Obamacare," says Fehrnstrom. "But everybody brings their record to the race."
Unemployed and Conservative
As the crowd gathered in Stratham, N.H., Romney awaited his introduction by Frank Guinta, the mayor of nearby Manchester and now a newly elected Congressman, part of the incoming Republican wave. "We're pleased and honored to have him back in New Hampshire," Guinta said. "Although we have been seeing a lot of him lately." Folks started laughing, and Guinta quickly realized his mistake. "No, no," he stammered, "because he lives in Wolfeboro. There may be another reason. I don't know."
Why won't Romney just come out and say he wants to be President? He knows well the hazard of entering the process too early and becoming a target. So he has feigned confusion at what all the fuss is about. He has become practiced at this sort of false modesty, often telling the story of a phone call he placed to a corporate executive's secretary, who had asked for the name of Romney's company. "Well, I'm currently unemployed," he deadpans. Romney has decided he needs to show voters he doesn't take himself too seriously.
But on this day in Stratham, he knew that a national political reporter was lurking in the room, and while Romney would not grant an interview, an aide said the governor didn't mind previewing his take on President Obama. So he cut right into it, with the muscular language of a man who can get the conservative juices flowing. "There will be an abject and utter repudiation of Obamaism," he said.
Then came a blizzard of one-liners, all delivered to the room smoothly, without notes, describing the President as an ideologue who exploited economic crises for his own job-stifling agenda. In a few short minutes, Romney mentioned cap and trade, card check, the U.S. Constitution, the Founding Fathers, the spirit of free enterprise, the stimulus "that grew government," Obama's international "apologizing for America" and the President's leisurely penchant for golf, which, Romney made clear, he does not share. "This President and his fellow travelers in Washington fundamentally don't understand America," Romney said. "They don't understand what it is that makes this nation so successful, so powerful, so good."
He had the crowd hanging on every word, though it was always his crowd well heeled, with name-tag stickers, juggling hors d'oeuvres and refreshments. This was still the pregame warm-up, after all. But Romney has been practicing. He has been doing his homework. Plainly, he is ready to try again.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 31, 2011 issue of TIME.