ATLANTA — An official presidential candidate for less than a week, Newt Gingrich already finds himself in hot water with conservatives for suggesting he supports health care mandates while at the same time deriding a Republican budget proposal that would replace Medicare with vouchers.
The former House speaker has moved quickly to backtrack, arguing he remains "committed to the complete repeal of Obamacare" and supports state lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
But even as Gingrich distances himself from the law he is not backing away from one of its central tenets: that all Americans have a responsibility to share in the cost of health care.
Gingrich's remarks have created an uproar in conservative circles, where Obama's health law is anathema. And they have left the wonky Gingrich scrambling to explain himself on a complicated issue that had been expected to play a key role in his campaign for the White House.
On Monday, Gingrich told reporters in Iowa that he wasn't flip-flopping, but that his ideas are "evolving."
The furor began on NBC's "Meet The Press" on Sunday.
"I agree that all of us have a responsibility to pay — help pay for health care," Gingrich said.
"And, I think that there are ways to do it that make most libertarians relatively happy. I've said consistently we ought to have some requirement that you either have health insurance or you post a bond."
He went on to label the Medicare proposal in Rep. Paul Ryan's budget blueprint a "radical" change that would reshape the popular government entitlement program.
The Wisconsin Republican, chairman of the House Budget Committee, would replace Medicare with vouchers that older Americans could use to purchase private health insurance coverage.
Gingrich likened the proposal, in its dramatic scope, to the Obama-backed health law.
"I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering," Gingrich said on NBC. "I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a good way for a free society to operate."
On Tuesday night, Gingrich called Ryan to apologize, spokesmen for both men said. Ryan spokesman Conor Sweeney said the congressman accepted Gingrich's apology, and Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler said the telephone call "went very well."
The twin exchanges have opened Gingrich up to charges of inconsistency. On the one hand, Gingrich says some mandates are OK. On the other, he doesn't like imposing mandated change on senior citizens.
His attempts to clear the matter up only seem to have muddied waters.
"In a free society you cannot tell citizens what they should buy and what those things should be," Gingrich said in a statement seeking to clear the matter up. "I also believe individuals should be responsible to pay for the care that they receive."
He said that states "should be free to design a system that works best to achieve that goal."Comment on this story
That echoes the rationale that fellow Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is using to explain the program he signed into law in Massachusetts, which mandates health coverage. That health law, with its similarities to the federal plan, is seen as a key liability for Romney in a Republican contest.
Gingrich stuck to his guns on the Ryan Medicare proposal at a campaign stop Monday in Iowa.
"I don't think you want to come in and to say to every single American, we're going to come in and change uniformly for all of you in the most fundamental way what happens to you when you are 65," Gingrich said.
A Gingrich spokesman said the former Georgia congressman likes the idea of the Ryan Medicare proposal but doesn't believe it should be compulsory. Gingrich believes that if it's successful, spokesman Rick Tyler said, it will attract participants.