During a weekend speech to New Hampshire Republicans, Mitt Romney delivered what will likely be his most durable rejoinder to critics of the universal health care program he signed into law while governor of Massachusetts.
Still remaining, though, is a lingering, fundamental question about his authenticity that has only been perpetuated by recent appearances.
You could argue that how well he answers that core concern, not just addresses a single issue, will determine whether he wins the GOP's presidential nomination next year and has a shot at being elected president in 2012.
In a speech to Carroll County Republicans, Romney did not run or shy away from the health insurance law he signed with great fanfare in April 2006.
"Our experiment wasn't perfect. Some things worked; some things didn't. Some things, I'd change,'' Romney said, as AP National Political Writer Liz Sidoti put it, he addressed an "obvious political vulnerability" against critics who complain the state plan paved the way for "Obamacare."
Mea culpa complete, Romney then outlined his rejoinder.
"But one thing I would never do is usurp the constitutional power of states with a one-size-fits-all federal takeover," he said.
Romney argues Massachusetts had a unique health insurance situation, with a unique financial backdrop, and a unique path for addressing it. Adhering to the federalist principle underpinning the Constitution, the Harvard Law School graduate argues, such power should be reserved for the states.
Imposing a federal solution through a nationwide plan, the logic goes, undercuts states' rights.
The argument allows Romney not to run from the Massachusetts plan even as he distances himself from the federal one modeled after it.
"I would repeal Obamacare," he told his audience in the lead-presidential primary state. "My experience has taught me that the states are the place where health care programs for the uninsured should be crafted, just as the Constitution provides. Obamacare is bad law constitutionally, it’s bad policy, it’s bad for American families. And that’s one reason why President Obama will be a one-term president.”
Of course, that argument does not address conservative concerns about the government mandate to obtain health insurance and accompanying penalties for failing to do so that drive the Massachusetts plan (and were replicated in the federal law). Nor does it address cost growth and tangential challenges such as increased waits for primary care doctors that have occurred in Massachusetts.
Nonetheless, there is logic to the rebuttal, unlike some of the more emotional responses he has offered.
During his 2008 presidential campaign, Romney largely tried to ignore what may have been his more far-reaching accomplishment as governor.
In 2009 and 2010, he cast about for different responses as he positioned himself for a second run. He earned condemnation on the right when he said the Massachusetts program was the "ultimate conservative plan" because it required individual responsibility. He was criticized by the left when he blamed state Democrats for altering the plan by overriding eight vetoes he made the day he signed the bill into law.
A year ago, he also sounded resigned as the attacks piled up.
"You do what you think is right, and if people decide that that's not something they're happy with, so be it," he said after an audience member upbraided him over the subject during an appearance in Chicago.
This year, as he stands on the cusp of a second White House bid, Romney has been forced anew to respond. Not only are potential Republican presidential rivals such as Haley Barbour and Tim Pawlenty criticizing him, but so is a rising star like Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, as well as Obama himself, whom the Democrats will offer as their 2012 candidate.
The response came in the form of a meaty paragraph inserted into an otherwise broad attack on the president's handling of domestic policy and foreign affairs.
"The federal government isn’t the answer for running health care any more than it’s the answer for running Amtrak or the Post Office," Romney said as he concluded that section of his speech. "An economy run by the federal government doesn’t work for Europe, and it certainly would never, ever work here."
At the outset of his remarks, though, Romney offered fresh reason to doubt his authenticity as a political candidate.
After organizing a speech in the first presidential primary state, after flying up from a conservative economic cattle call in Florida, after driving up to a New Hampshire hotel on a driveway lined with "Romney for President" signs, Romney acted as if he were still undecided about another race.
Of course, some of that is political posturing, but then he triggered snickers by telling the crowd it wasn't so much him that was the driving force behind a second campaign as it was his wife, Ann.
Ann Romney is a strong and vivacious woman who has not only raised five sons but endured near-total separation from them as they spent two years apiece as Mormon missionaries. She still copes with debilitating multiple sclerosis, and had to fend off a case of breast cancer.
Yet it stretches belief to think that Ann Romney is the reason why:
*Mitt Romney was a loyal soldier to John McCain almost immediately after losing the 2008 GOP primary campaign, raising him money, campaigning ceaselessly, and offering himself as a vice presidential running mate.
*Mitt Romney formed and made himself "honorary chairman" of the Free and Strong America PAC in 2009 and used the so-called leadership PAC to sprinkle campaign cash on candidates across the country.
*Mitt Romney sat in their oceanfront home in La Jolla, Calif., writing a book, "No Apology," and then in a dim studio to personally read aloud each page for an audiobooks version.
*Mitt Romney has retained the core team of political advisers from his 2008 White House race and meets regularly with them at an office park in Lexington.
*Mitt Romney has undertaken a aggressive travel schedule both last year and this, including stops last week alone in Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and New Hampshire. This coming week, he's off to Texas and another visit to Florida.
The comment recalls the moment in 2006 when Romney signed the heath care law in Boston's Faneuil Hall.
Ceremony attendees climbed the building's steps to its historic second-floor meeting hall, where they were handed programs printed on mock parchment inscribed with mock quilled ink. Before them stood the permanent stage, which was festooned with banners and expanded with a platform. It was covered in an oriental rug and bearing a desk on which the bill would be signed into law.
The entire scene was professionally lit and the event was broadcast by professional sound technicians.
All of it also was controlled by Romney's staff, which to this day pays special attention to the theatrics of his appearances including kicking reporters out of the ballroom before Saturday night's speech so they could adjust the TelePrompTer and attend to other aesthetics in private.
The governor arrived that April day with great fanfare, climbed the steps himself, and when he entered the hall, appeared thunderstruck at the scene before him.
Wow, he said to reporters standing next to him. Who arranged all this, he asked.
The response: You did, through the team that surrounds you constantly and briefs you on every appearance.
But it wasn't just Saturday night's comment casting himself as a subservient being propelled to action.
Earlier in the week, as potential rival Newt Gingrich traveled to Georgia to reveal he was laying the groundwork for his own presidential exploratory committee, Romney himself decided to make a little news during his own visit to the state.
Following a path trodden by other politicians such as Gingrich and former President Carter, Romney decided to visit Tommy Thomas's barbershop in Atlanta.
“Just got a Trim at Tommy’s in Atlanta,” Romney wrote on his Twitter account, which also posted a photo of the visit.
It showed Romney with his trademark mane of perfectly coiffed, perfectly gelled hair and barely a speck of hair on the cloth around his neck or the smock across his chest.
When Globe colleague Matt Viser called Thomas to find out more about the visit, the barber told him he hardly touched Romney's hair.
“I gave him a super-light trim,” Thomas said. “He wanted to know what our concerns were, what everyone thought of what’s going on in Washington.”
The Tommy's trip came a couple weeks after Romney popped up in Florida at the Daytona 500.
Romney is a true auto buff, a Mustang owner who is the son of a former American Motors president and was raised in Michigan, home of the American auto industry.
That a potential presidential candidate would show up at the biggest NASCAR event of the year, or glad-hand among potential supporters, is hardly out of the norm.
Yet when photos surfaced of Romney working the crowd, he was wearing a "Bass Pro Shops" shirt as if he were a regular angler or race sponsor.
It recalled the moment during the 2008 campaign when he proclaimed himself "pretty much a lifelong hunter," only to have his spokesman struggle to go beyond two episodes of hunting in his life. Even the guns kept in Romney's Utah vacation home turned out to be owned by one of his sons.
Individually, such incidents will hardly bring down a presidential campaign. But cumulatively, they can erode its foundation. Just ask John Kerry, another Massachusetts politician who ran for president.
His 2004 presidential campaign was undermined by doubts about his own authenticity and political core, encapsulated in his infamous "I-voted-for-it-before-I-voted-against-it" comment about war funding.
Despite public opposition to the Iraq War, despite a faltering economy, despite in the eyes of most political analysts beating President Bush in their three prime-time campaign debates, Kerry lost the election.
Voters just did not connect with him in sufficient numbers to oust an incumbent a lot disliked.
In Romney's case, he has a commendable resume on which to campaign, rooted in a moral base highlighted by a 42-year marriage and a religious faith rooted in clean living.
He did well as a student, earning a law degree and masters in business at Harvard at the same time. He did better than well in business, providing seed money as a venture capitalist and making himself tens of millions for himself in the process. He then walked away from Bain Capital and deals that could have earned him tens of millions more to do a public service by volunteering to resurrect the financially troubled 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
Returning to Massachusetts, he helped reverse a budget shortfall and signed into law the nation's first universal health care law, all while eschewing a salary. Today, over 98 percent of state residents have insurance, and the plan has served as model for national legislation.
Over the weekend, Romney provided an answer for those asking how he could have done such a thing. Still to come is an answer for those asking why he does other things, and what they all say about him.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.