WASHINGTON - When Mitt Romney began laying the groundwork for his presidential campaign, his advisers thought the biggest issue for him to grapple with would be health care — so much so that the former Massachusetts governor staged an early major speech on the topic.
But after a slow summer on the campaign trail — and a volatile few weeks that has reshaped the race — Romney’s health care plan has continued to fade into the background.
So far, it has not turned out to be the dominant issue of a race dominated by the economy, deficit, and the future of Social Security.
In a debate Monday night sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express, Romney’s health care plan didn’t come up until a full hour and 15 minutes into the debate. Even then, it was moderator Wolf Blitzer who addressed it — not any of Romney’s rivals or audience questions coming from Tea Party activists.
Top rival Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, doesn’t bring it up often. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who has staked much of his candidacy on being an alternative to Romney, rarely cites it. US Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who pummels President Obama’s health care plan, only addresses Romney’s when asked.
In addition, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty – one of the early critics of the plan – endorsed Romney this week.
It’s another indication that Romney’s plan is not the deal-breaker for Republicans it was once thought to be.
Pawlenty had been among Romney’s harshest critic on the topic, derisively referring to the state universal health insurance plan signed into law by the former Massachusetts governor, and the similar federal plan signed by Obama, as “ObamneyCare.”
Nonetheless, Pawlenty failed to deliver a solid punch on the topic in a debate and dropped out of the presidential race last month.
“Those who like it, like it, those who don’t like it, don’t like it,” said Jim Talent, a former US senator from Missouri and top Romney adviser. “But I think it’s sort of been assimilated into the body politic. It’s been discounted by the political market.”
At least for the primary campaign.
In any general election campaign between Romney and Obama, the president could - and already has - defended his program by noting it was based on the Massachusetts model. That is part of the reason some Republicans have questioned Romney’s ability to go head-to-head with the liberal Obama on such a core conservative issue.
Part of the reason the focus has diminished now is because Romney is no longer the GOP nomination front-runner, and much of the attention is now on Perry. That could shift later in the campaign, if Romney retakes the lead and candidates look for flaws to point out.
“It’s overtaken by other events,” said Stuart Stevens, another top Romney adviser. “I think the hot-button issue is going to be whether or not you think Rick Perry is right on immigration, (or) his position on Social Security.”
Perry has tried to criticize Romney on health care several times, but has placed far more emphasis on Romney’s record as a job-creator.
One of the challenges for Perry is that he can’t really criticize Romney for signing a law that included a mandate, in this case for compulsory health insurance, because he has, too.
The governor signed an executive order in 2007 mandating that all teenage girls in Texas receive the human papillomavirus vaccine to guard against the sexually transmitted infection. The Texas Legislature later overruled that decision, and Perry has said that he was wrong to have pursued the policy.
Romney cited the mandate parallels during a brief health care segment in Monday’s debate.