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Romney rivals leave their mitts on -- for now

Were he not a politician with White House ambitions, I might actually feel sorry for Mitt Romney.

In an era sadly defined by the likes of Bernie Madoff and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. Romney stands apart as an exemplary businessman, family man and public official. And by standing apart, I mean precisely the opposite: The former Massachusetts governor blends almost unnoticeably into the background.

Mr. Romney doesn't attract major headlines because the carnivorous beast known as the 24-hour news cycle feeds not on the lean scraps of policy or intellectual debate, but the red meat of scandal. The former investment banker and Olympic committee chair is about as exciting and controversial as a month-old rice cake.

And yet, he will likely be the primary target for scorn among contenders in the 2012 Republican presidential field, if for no other reason than that Mr. Romney is the closest thing this cycle to the GOP's front-runner. Historically, the Republican Party tends to nominate the next guy in line, and so that means this time around it's Mr. Romney's nomination to lose.

To defeat Mr. Romney, the other Republicans are going to have to beat him up a bit. Surprisingly, on Monday night, the other six contenders onstage at St. Anselm's College in Manchester, N.H., for the CNN-hosted presidential debate treated Mr. Romney — who has changed his positions on what seems like everything — rather gingerly. You could almost hear crickets chirping when moderator John King asked if his fellow Republicans accepted Mr. Romney's claim that he is now fully pro-life.

But the real reason to feel for Mitt Romney is that his biggest opponent and worst critic is himself. As the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza explained earlier this month, Mr. Romney takes a lot of flak for his reversals on a variety of issues, from abortion to gay rights. And inevitably, he will be crucified politically for what may well be his single greatest public-sector accomplishment: the Massachusetts health care reform legislation he signed into law in 2006.

Critics say the Massachusetts law, notable for its first-in-the-nation mandatory insurance requirement, is a travesty of government overreach. Really?

Apparently, it's time for a quick refresher quiz, so here goes: Who, among the following, applauded the individual mandate when Governor Romney proposed it: Ted Kennedy, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush or the health policy experts at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank?

Answer: all of the above.

That's right. Those who think mandatory health insurance is a bad idea — socialist, and possibly unconstitutional — should make sure to parade around with their "Don't Tread on Me" flags on the front lawns of the former Republican president and House speaker. Pressed by Mr. King during Monday's debate, a sheepish Mr. Gingrich had to acknowledge his support for the idea of an insurance mandate, before quickly changing the subject.

Though his Republican rivals treated him mostly with kid gloves Monday, soon enough they will begin to lambaste Mr. Romney about health care reform. On Sunday, in fact, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty beat the rest of the field to the punch by using the term "Obamneycare" to discredit Mr. Romney's record by linking him to the legislation President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats enacted in 2010. Face-to-face with Mr. Romney in Manchester, Mr. Pawlenty dialed back his criticism, but this line of attack will return because it holds great appeal to Republican primary voters and donors.

Mr. Romney is trying to rise above his critics and behave like the putative nominee by focusing his ire on President Obama and the economy. The Romney campaign recently released a compelling ad that criticizes the president for doing too little to end an economic recession he once referred to as a "bump in the road." In the ad, unemployed Americans lie prone next to each other on a dirt road, like human speed bumps. Each, in turn, stands up to declare, "I'm not a bump in the road."

Although Monday night was more like political bumper cars than a demolition derby, Mr. Romney will have to navigate around his share of political obstacles along the road to winning the Republican nomination. And then there is that giant pothole called health care reform, which the former Massachusetts governor must avoid if he wants to be the GOP's 2012 nominee.

Safe driving, governor.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday in The Sun. His email is schaller67@gmail.com.

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