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Santorum goes after Romney, Gingrich on healthcare

Reporting from North Charleston, S.C. --

Rick Santorum, in third or fourth place in South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary race, managed to bruise the two leading candidates in Thursday night’s debate – in a matter of minutes – by casting them both as advocates of big-government healthcare.

Santorum criticized front-runner Mitt Romney for the healthcare plan that he signed into law in Massachusetts and cast Newt Gingrich as unelectable because of his past support for requiring Americans to buy insurance.

Romney has long been criticized for his role in enacting the Massachusetts healthcare law, which was the foundation for the federal law that President Obama signed in 2010. But in most debates he has been able to brush the topic off by saying it was a state law that shouldn’t be forced on the rest of the country.

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Similarly, it’s no secret that Gingrich backs – or at least used to support – an individual mandate. There’s even video floating around that shows him proposing a requirement that people carry insurance or post a $100,000 or $150,000 bond. Gingrich also has generally succeeded in disavowing the topic.

As we reported last year, the individual mandate was once supported by many Republicans. As lawmakers on the left advocated for expanding the government or employer role in providing health insurance, it was Republicans who proposed the individual mandate as a private-sector solution. It became toxic in the mainstream of the Republican Party once Democrats embraced it.

ThinkProgress dug up some old newspaper clips suggesting Santorum also supported the mandate when he was running in a Republican primary in the 1990s. But that position is not well-known. And on the debate stage Thursday night, Santorum refused to let either of his rivals off the hook.

Referring to himself as “the author of health savings accounts,” Santorum cast himself as the only candidate who could credibly attack Obama on healthcare.

“These are two folks who don’t present the clear contrast that I do,” he said. “I’ve been fighting for health reform, private-sector, bottom-up, the way America works best, for 20 years while these two guys were playing footsies with the left.”

Romney replied with a familiar defense, arguing that the Massachusetts system is “not a government-run system,” even though it relies heavily on Medicaid funds, and pledging to “return the power to the states, where the power for caring for the uninsured ought to reside constitutionally.”

Santorum wasn’t having it.

“You’re defending a plan that is top-down,” he said. “It is not a free-market healthcare system.... It was the basis for ‘Obamacare.’ And we do not draw a distinction that it’s going to be effective for us just because it was the state level, not the federal level.”

Gingrich said he was confident in his ability to debate Obama over healthcare, citing his work helping Santorum push health savings accounts in Congress, the book he wrote and his healthcare think tank.

“You can’t run rings around the fact, Newt, that you supported the primary core basis of what President Obama’s put in place,” Santorum said.

“Of course you can,” Gingrich replied. “You can say I was wrong and I figured it out. You were wrong and you didn’t.”


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