WASHINGTON — A Mitt Romney aide raised eyebrows Wednesday by defending a healthcare law the Republican passed as governor but distanced himself from after challenging President Barack Obama for the White House.
The apparent gaffe alarmed conservative pundits, who feared it would hand ammunition to Obama supporters defending the Democratic incumbent's 2009 national health care law, which was based on the same principles as Romney's.
Provoked by a pro-Obama ad that cited an unemployed steel worker complaining that his family had lost health insurance coverage after a Romney-owned firm laid him off, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul took a surprise stance.
"To that point, you know, if people had been in Massachusetts under governor Romney's health care plan, they would have had health care," Saul told Fox News, normally a safe stage for Republican talking heads.
In 2006 when governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed sweeping health care reforms, including a mandate obliging uninsured individuals to buy coverage or pay a penalty, just as they must do under Obama's later national reform.
Republicans have vowed to repeal so-called "Obamacare," and many of them savaged Romney during the party primary season earlier this year.
Critics warned that nominating Romney, whose law arguably formed the basis of Obama's later the national plan, would make it tougher to argue the case against the president's signature legislation.
Romney insists he does not think his state law is a good national model, but he too recalled his reforms on Wednesday, after months of hammering away at Obamacare but largely keeping quiet about his own law.
"We've got to do some reforms in health care and I have some experience doing that, as you know," Romney told supporters in Des Moines, Iowa.
"I want to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions are able to get insurance and that people don't have to worry about getting dropped from their insurance coverage and that health insurance is available to all people."
Those points are among the key elements of the Affordable Care Act which Obama consistently touts on the campaign trail.
Saul's comments defending the earlier scheme shocked some high-profile conservatives.
"That's a potential goldmine for the Obama-ites," declared radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh after Saul's comments left the influential motormouth commentator uncharacteristically speechless.
"They can say: 'Well yeah, 'Romneycare' was the foundation for our plan.'"
Conservative blogger Erick Erickson went so far as to suggest Saul's blunder may have been fatal for Romney's presidential bid.
"This might just be the moment Mitt Romney lost the election. Wow," tweeted Erickson, editor-in-chief of RedState.com.
There was no immediate reaction from the campaigns, but observers were quick to mock Romney online. "Romney moves to embrace Romneycare," was the headline on a Washington Post blog.
Others, however, argued that it might be part of a deliberate Romney campaign plan to tout his state policy ahead of the presidential debates in October and the election itself on November 6.
"A lot of people are saying (Saul) went off message, but I'm not so sure," wrote W. James Antle III of conservative magazine The American Spectator.
"There are those who think Romney would benefit politically from embracing his Massachusetts health care record, even if it blurs the distinction with Barack Obama on the issue. This may be the beginning of the campaign testing that theory."
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