Image: Mitt Romney
Alex Brandon  /  AP
Mitt Romney shakes hands after speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington on Feb. 11.
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updated 3/14/2011 9:27:14 AM ET 2011-03-14T13:27:14

President Barack Obama and other top Democrats have been quick to lavish praise on former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney for signing the sweeping health care law in 2006 that laid the groundwork for Obama's national health care overhaul.

The fact that repeal of the national law, derided as "Obamacare," was a rallying cry for Republicans in last year's midterm election hasn't been lost on Democratic loyalists who hope to taint Romney by tying him too closely to what is a highly unpopular law among GOP voters.

Story: Obama, other pols trade barbs at journalists' dinner

Some analysts are wondering if that strategy could end up backfiring if Romney wins the Republican nomination for president and has to reach out to independents and moderate Democrats — especially if those voters start warming up to the national law and its Massachusetts precedent.

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

"Democrats need to be careful of that strategy of praising him too much," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "Once he has the nomination he'll be playing to moderates and independent voters and he could use that in his favor."

Boston University communications professor Tobe Berkovitz also warned that Romney could eventually use Obama's comments to appeal to the same voters Obama needs for a second term.

"The fact is, Romney has proven himself to be a very adept politician when it comes to dealing with problematic voters," he said, noting Romney's success in Democratic Massachusetts. "He could take the pushing by the Democrats and flip it around."

Romney walks fine line
Romney has walked a fine line on the 2006 health law, which he once considered a crowning achievement of his single term as Massachusetts governor.

Story: Cluttered Republican field confronting Obama

As he weighs another run for the White House, Romney has cautiously defended his decision to sign the health care initiative even as he criticizes the national health law, essentially arguing that the decision to expand insurance coverage should be left up to the states, not the federal government.

A top Romney aide has recently gone a step further, saying Romney is "proud" of what the state law has accomplished. Massachusetts has the highest number of insured residents of any state in the country, with more than 98 percent coverage.

The Democratic plaudits haven't escaped Romney's notice.

During a speech at a recent Republican dinner in New Hampshire, Romney joked about Obama and Democrats spending "more time talking about me and Massachusetts health care than Entertainment Tonight spends talking about Charlie Sheen."

The kudos has been piling up fast.

Addressing a recent meeting of the National Governor's Association, Obama not only credited Romney for providing a blueprint for the federal law, but also said he agreed with Romney that states should take more of a lead on overhauling health care.

"I agree with Mitt Romney, who recently said he's proud of what he accomplished on health care in Massachusetts and supports giving states the power to determine their own health care solutions. He's right," Obama said. "Alabama is not going to have exactly the same needs as Massachusetts or California or North Dakota. We believe in that flexibility."

Obama pointed to another Massachusetts Republican, Sen. Scott Brown, who wants to let states seek a waiver from the federal health care law sooner than the law now allows as long as the states provide coverage of the same quality and affordability as mandated by the national law.

"That's a reasonable proposal," Obama said. "I support it."

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who plans to stump for fellow Democrat and friend Obama in next year's election, has also applauded Romney, saying "one of the best things he did was to be the co-author of our health care reform."

'Our experiment wasn't perfect'
As he gears up for an expected 2012 presidential bid, Romney has appeared unsure about whether to distance himself from the law he signed.

At a recent Republican dinner in New Hampshire, Romney vowed to repeal the federal health care law if elected president while saying individual states should be the incubators of new health care approaches.

"Our approach was a state plan intended to address problems that were in many ways unique to Massachusetts," Romney said. "Our experiment wasn't perfect. Some things worked. Some didn't. And some things I'd change.

"One thing I would never do is to usurp the constitutional power of states with a one-size-fits-all federal takeover," Romney said.

GOP challengers pounce
While Democrats have been quick to congratulate Romney, his potential GOP challengers have pounced on the same issue.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has said Romney should offer an apology for the Massachusetts law.

"He has to say either 'I love it,' 'I hate it,' or, 'Hey I tried it, it didn't work and that's why I would say to you, let's not do it nationally,'" Huckabee said last month. "He's got to figure out how he wants to deal with it."

One of the most contentious elements of a national law — the so-called individual mandate that requires that nearly everyone has insurance or face penalties — was a key element of the Massachusetts law.

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Another Democrat, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who lost a special Senate election to Brown last year, pointed to Romney's support for the individual mandate in an amicus brief her office recently filed in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to support the federal health care law.

The brief quotes Romney's own words in defense of the individual mandate.

"This personal responsibility principle means that individuals should not expect society to pay for their medical costs if they forego affordable health insurance options," Romney wrote in a letter accompanying the health care bill he would later sign.

Key issue: public's view of national health law
Romney's ongoing hesitation to fully embrace the law reflects the wider ambivalence among the American populace for the national health law.

If sentiment toward the law warms as next year's election approaches, especially among key independent voters, Romney hesitancy to embrace the law may make him seem out of step with his own legacy. If voters stay cool, Romney's distance may help him.

Whether the Democratic penchant for praising Romney backfires may ultimately depend on Romney himself, according to Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts.

"That strategy would have greater credence if Romney were embracing all the accolades that Obama and Patrick have been giving him," Watanabe said. "But he has been resisting. He's been attempting to divorce himself from it."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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