Conservatives complained Wednesday that the praise Mitt Romney's campaign expressed for a Massachusetts health care law was a moment of betrayal akin to one-term President George H.W. Bush's broken "read my lips" promise not to raise taxes.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul angered conservatives when in an interview on Fox News she sought to rebut a Democratic ad that effectively blamed Romney for the cancer-related death of a woman. Instead, Saul ended up touting health care reforms similar to those implemented by President Obama, reforms Republicans are now trying to repeal.
"If people had been in Massachusetts, under Gov. Romney's health care plan, they would have had health care," Saul said.
Conservatives gasped. Romney's reforms in Massachusetts served as a model for the Obama health care law.
Erick Erickson, co-founder and author on the conservative website Red State, condemned Saul's comments in a blog entry headlined "The moment all doubt about Romney resurfaced on the right."
Saul's comments revived earlier tensions between Romney and the Republican Party's conservative base, which during the presidential primary expressed its doubts about Romney's principles. Likening Romney to Bush, who failed to win a second term in part because conservatives claimed they couldn't trust him, is a bad sign for Romney.
The new ad, paid for by the pro-Obama super-PAC Priorities USA Action, features Joe Soptic talking about his wife's death from cancer. Soptic had lost his job at a steel mill, and his health insurance, after the mill was bought by Romney's Bain Capital and went bankrupt.
Soptic appears to suggest that his loss of health insurance was somehow related to his wife's death, but she actually died in 2006, five years after the mill closed, and had her own health insurance.
As misleading as the ad is, Romney's campaign appeared to struggle with its response to it. And that puzzled conservatives, who questioned why Romney would raise the thorny issue of his health care reforms rather than focus on the ad's inaccuracies.
"The Romney campaign must stop talking about the health care plan," said a Republican strategist who requested anonymity. "It has given them nothing but heartburn by conservatives as the campaign tries to focus on the economy and independent voters."
Christopher Hahn, a Democratic strategist, said Saul's comments illustrate the biggest vulnerabilities in the GOP's choice of a candidate.
"He's absolutely the worst person in the world to run against President Obama on the issue of health care," Hahn said. "They nominated a guy who passed the same exact health care law as the president."
The Romney campaign was doing damage control late Wednesday, dropping any talk of health care and trying to turn the story to the Obama campaign's misleading efforts to deny its connection to the super-PAC and Soptic. Obama aides said they didn't know Soptic, but he has actually appeared in Obama campaign videos in the past.
"With unemployment at a five-month high and stagnant economic growth, President Obama and his campaign are willing to say and do anything to hide the president's disappointing record," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said. "But they're not entitled to repeatedly mislead voters. Americans deserve better -- they deserve a president who's willing to run an honest campaign and be honest about his own record."