LAS VEGAS – It was billed as a foreign policy address, but it didn’t take long before the most prominent issue that could haunt Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign came up.
The first question from the audience after his 24-minute address before the Republican Jewish Coalition here was not about Israel or unrest in the Middle East. It was about Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts.
Romney largely defended the rationale of the Massachusetts plan, saying that it helped spur greater health care coverage so uninsured residents wouldn’t simply go to emergency rooms for care.
But he sought to distinguish the plan from President Obama’s national plan by casting it as an issue of states’ rights.
“I would never do what President Obama did, which is usurp the power of states and replace it with an overreaching federal hand,” Romney said. “That’s the wrong way.”
He reiterated that he would grant waivers to all 50 states if he were elected, and then work to repeal the legislation.
“If we get the chance to talk about health care, it will be fun,” Romney said. “Because of course he does me the great favor of saying that I was the inspiration for his plan. I’ll say, if that’s the case, why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t you ask me what was wrong? why didn’t you ask…what worked and what didn’t?’”
“I can’t wait to have those conversations, and I’ll take it to him,” he added. “On the other hand, I’m not going to go after people on innuendo and personal attacks. I’m going to go after people I disagree with on policy.”
Another audience member questioned whether Romney had the fire to take on Obama, citing what he called a “gentlemanly type of campaign” that Romney ran against Democratic nominee Shannon O’Brien in 2002.
“I will take him on head on and aggressively if I’m the nominee,” Romney said.
Romney, who was joined by his wife, Ann, delivered the address before about 200 people in a ballroom at the Venetian Hotel. Among those in the room was Sheldon Adelson, the Dorchester-born casino magnate who has given some of his considerable wealth to Republican political causes.
Romney had zingers for Democrats (“We are flying high because Nancy Pelosi is flying coach”), commentary on his music tastes (“I like country music. I’m not an extraordinary fan”), and one-liners about his four-year tenure as governor (“I’ve not been in politics so long that I inhaled. I’m still a business guy.”)
Although the speech focused on foreign policy, he never mentioned the hottest foreign policy issue – Libya – even though he briefly addressed the broader unrest in the Middle East.
“It’s hard to read where that’s going to go,” he said. “This could either be one of the most positive developments in the history of the last 50 years in the Middle East…Or it could be one of the worst things that’s happened over the last 50 years.”
The speech wrapped up a two-day swing to Nevada, and marked rare public events for a likely candidate who has been largely operating behind closed doors, meeting with donors and building a campaign staff.
Afterward, Romney declined to discuss any of his future plans on running for president.
“I don’t have anything to announce,” he said as he walked to an escalator. When asked if he had a sense of timing for an announcement, he said, “I have a sense, and I’d tell you. But I don’t have one of those magic pens like they had on Men in Black, where I could wipe out your memory.”
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.