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Mitt Romney, Jay Leno discuss health care responsibilities

WASHINGTON – Most guests who sit upon Jay Leno’s late night show couch get tossed a series of softballs designed to promote a movie or draw a laugh.

When Mitt Romney was on the show Tuesday night – following a series of light-hearted exchanges – the conversation turned more serious, to whether Romney would remove guaranteed health care coverage for those with preexisting conditions.

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“People with preexisting conditions — as long as they’ve been insured before, they’re going to continue to have insurance,” Romney said on NBC’s “Tonight Show.”

But, Leno asked, what if they haven’t been insured?

“Well, if they’re 45 years old, and they show up, and say, I want insurance because I’ve got a heart disease, it’s like, `Hey guys, we can’t play the game like that,’” Romney answered. “You’ve got to get insurance when you’re well, and if you get ill, then you’re going to be covered.”

The exchange highlighted a challenge for Romney as seeks to capitalize on the controversy over President Obama’s health care law, which is currently before the Supreme Court. As a whole, the law is unpopular with the American public. But the component that bars health insurance companies from denying coverage to those with preexisting conditions is favored by the vast majority of Americans – 85 percent in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll.

Romney, who wants to repeal the federal health care law, has said he would replace it with a new law. Among the components of the new law, Romney says, would be not allowing insurance companies to deny coverage because of a preexisting condition. But Romney would only allow this for those who have been continuously insured for a fixed period of time. Romney has not specified the period of time someone would need to be insured in order to qualify.

President Obama’s plan fixes this problem through a mandate requiring residents to obtain insurance – similar to the mandate in Massachusetts. Since Romney opposes a federal mandate, there is less incentive for a healthy person to obtain insurance.

Romney, who wore a suit for the appearance, faces another challenge as he attempts to pivot to the general election: Far more voters view him in a negative light than a positive one. According to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, 50 percent of those surveyed had an unfavorable opinion of Romney, compared with 34 percent who view him favorably. President Obama’s figures were almost the reverse, with 53 percent viewing him favorably compared with 43 percent unfavorably.

Appearances on shows such as Leno’s could help Romney soften his image, showing he has humorous side despite a bruising Republican primary that has been filled with negative ads. Before the appearance, Romney donned a self-deprecating approach.

“They said, `Don’t try and be funny. Just answer the questions straight,’” Romney said of advice given to him by his advisers. “I’m rarely funny on purpose, so we’ll see what happens tonight.”

At one point on Tuesday night, Leno engaged Romney in a word-association game with some top Republicans.

He was asked what word came to mind when he thought of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (“Indominable. He’s a man of strong will, great strength”), Senator Marco Rubio of Florida (“The American Dream,”), South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (“Energetic”), and business magnate Donald Trump (“Huge’’).

Romney was then asked about his chief rival, Rick Santorum. “Press secretary,” Romney said.

When asked to give a hint of whom he would pick as his vice president, Romney briefly demurred.

“I could do you a favor with this,” he told Leno. “I could choose David Letterman.”

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com
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