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Steven Senne, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign stop in Metairie, La., Friday, March 23, 2012.
You can move on to anything you want. But the whole world is watching the Supreme Court. He should be out there saying what I just said, when [Romney] sees a problem he solves it. —Barbara Anderson, Massachusetts tax activist

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SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney usually downplays health care reform on the presidential campaign trail, but suddenly the issue has taken center stage — although some see it as a side show that won't last long.

With President Barack Obama's new health care reform law currently being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, a similar plan Romney pushed through earlier as governor of Massachusetts is attracting unwelcome attention.

Over the weekend, Romney's chief rival for the GOP nomination, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, said the plan made Romney the “the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama” on health care.

Romney launched his effort to provide universal health care for residents of Massachusetts at the same time he was setting up his 2008 White House bid, no doubt hoping to showcase the skills he would bring to the presidency.

Instead, Romney's health care plan has become a political liability, seen in this race as too closely associated with the Democratic president's Affordable Care Act.

"I think 'Obamacare' has become a symbol for a lot of conservative voters," said Atlanta-based GOP strategist Joel McElhannon. "It's one of the big weaknesses Romney has with conservatives."

The Republican's "hard-core base is strongly anti-Obama now," McElhannon said, and they see Romney "as somebody who maybe would embrace the same things as Obama would."

Romney's attempts to differentiate his state health care plan from the federal government's actions aren't really registering with a lot of voters, he said.

"For a lot of folks just mad as hell about everything, they're not drawing a distinction between state and federal government," McElhannon said. "It's not really an issue about health care. It's an issue about the overreach of government."

Romney has held two events recently calling for the repeal of the federal act, including a promise that's what he'll do if elected, as part of his standard campaign speech.

Asked how Romney is handling the focus on health care, his spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, said he "will continue to make the case that 'Obamacare' should be repealed and that the best course for health care is to return the responsibility and authority for reform to where it belongs, with the states."

Saul did not mention the Massachusetts plan but said Romney believes the federal law is unconstitutional and he looks forward to the Supreme Court striking it down.

"Romney can try to make the point it was right for Massachusetts," University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said. "It's best for him to just lay low, stay focused on his message about the economy" and not say anything about health care unless asked directly.

Hagle said Romney couldn't disown the Massachusetts plan even if he wanted to "because it would have given him more of the 'flip-flop' image," a reference to his shifting positions over the years on other issues key to conservatives, including abortion.

Massachusetts tax activist Barbara Anderson said Romney should embrace his health care reform plan. He came up with it to deal with concerns over the rising cost of health care, she said, calling him a problem solver.

"You can move on to anything you want. But the whole world is watching the Supreme Court. He should be out there saying what I just said, when he sees a problem he solves it," Anderson said. "From the beginning, I just don't understand why they didn't get out there with what those of us here understand. It was a valiant effort."

Northeastern University political science professor William Crotty said Romney tried to sell voters on the Massachusetts plan last election, losing the nomination to Arizona Sen. John McCain.

"He chose this time around to de-emphasize health care and emphasize the economy," the Boston-based professor said.  "This issue is much stronger for Santorum and he's going to make the most of it."

But going after Romney on health care won't keep him from eventually winning the nomination, Crotty said, Santorum's attack "gets attention and reconfirms his strength among social conservatives. But that's not enough."

Hagle agreed. The University of Iowa professor said this week's focus will quickly be forgotten once the high court hearings end.

"Yes, there's a lot of excitement about this right now. But nothing is going to happen for three months," Hagle said, or longer depending on when the court chooses to issue its ruling.

"The plus side for Romney in this is there isn't a primary this week. Which means he can lay low," he said. Romney has to "just weather this storm and move on."

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