Mitt Romney derided President Obama's national healthcare law as a federal "power grab" Thursday while defending the "more modest" state plan it was modeled after, beginning an effort to deal with his biggest vulnerability ahead of the Republican primary campaign.
In his first major speech since announcing the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, Romney said he would not apologize for the Massachusetts law he signed as governor in 2006, even though some have said that doing so would be politically advantageous. To abandon his record "wouldn't be honest," he said.
Instead, he sought to differentiate the two proposals, arguing that, unlike Obama's, the Massachusetts plan was not a "government takeover" of the healthcare system but a way to insure the half-million state residents without coverage.
Speaking at the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center, he conceded that each plan shared a mandate that all citizens obtain insurance, the very aspect that most conservatives now revile. But the Massachusetts plan ended what he said amounted to a mandate on taxpayers to fund healthcare for the uninsured.
"Other states can take a different choice. But the state decision we took was to insist upon personal responsibility," he said. "I, in fact, did what I believed was right for the people of my state. And I'm going to describe for you now what I think would be right for the people of the United States, which is quite a different plan."
Using PowerPoint slides over the course of a 30-minute presentation, Romney offered a side-by-side comparison of the 2010 plan moved by Democrats and signed by Obama and what he would propose if elected in 2012.
He said that one of his first actions upon taking office would be to sign an executive order offering waivers to all 50 states from "Obamacare" provisions, before urging Congress to enact a total repeal.
Beyond repeal -- a default position for virtually every Republican on the national scene -- the plan Romney outlined was essentially the same one he’d been promoting since he began pursuing the GOP nomination in 2008.
What has changed, though, is the political environment. Last time, healthcare was among the leading agenda items in the primaries. Romney's role in creating a government mandate was of concern more to conservative activists and theorists than to primary voters.
Today, however, getting rid of the healthcare law approved by Congress and Obama last year is animating Republicans across the country. The mandate requiring health coverage for Americans is at the center of the legal push by Republican officials in states nationwide to get the federal courts to declare the law unconstitutional.
It was against that backdrop that Romney has sought to remove, or at least whittle down, the impediment that healthcare would create for his party if he became the nominee.
His speech, however, invited elicited a fresh wave of attacks from the left and right, both about his record on the issue and the candidate himself.
In a blistering editorial, the conservative Wall Street Journal suggested that Joe Biden step down in the 2012 campaign so Romney can run as Obama's running mate.
"The debate over Obamacare and the larger entitlement state may be the central question of the 2012 election. On that question, Mr. Romney is compromised and not credible," the paper said.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the first Republican candidate to react to Romney's speech, said "Romneycare" had made healthcare worse and more expensive in Massachusetts.
"This is not a failure of execution, but a lack of foresight on Governor Romney's part to understand the implications of his policy proposals," he said in a statement. "We need leaders who believe in the American people again, not the power of government to solve our problems."
The new chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee told ABC on Thursday that Romney was trying to "repeal and erase" his own record.
"Voters want a person of conviction," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).
To deliver what his advisers described in advance as a "big moment" for his campaign, Romney chose his native Michigan, where his father, a top auto executive, served as governor. Four years ago, Romney formally launched his first presidential try in this state and returned to win its primary the next year.
He also has a Detroit-area fundraiser while he's in the neighborhood.
Memoli reported from Washington and West from Ann Arbor.