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Lucky Run

How Mitt Romney’s opponents missed their shot.

Since launching his second campaign for the White House, Mitt Romney has resolutely insisted he favored a health care requirement only for Massachusetts residents, not as a matter of national policy. But, in the days leading up to Super Tuesday, a reporter for the website Buzzfeed found damning evidence to the contrary—video footage of Romney touting the health care plan he enacted in the state as a “model” for the country, as well as a USA Today op-ed Romney authored making the same point.

That the GOP field had somehow overlooked these smoking guns for months was only the latest turn in the campaign’s most confounding subplot. Back when the contest began last year, many pundits seized on health care as the one Romney liability that spelled certain doom for him. After all, the Romney plan contained the genetic code for Barack Obama’s health care bill, an achievement Republicans now equate with civilizational decline. Yet Romney’s rivals never managed to turn this defect into a disqualifying indictment. It was an astonishing whiff, and Romney wouldn’t be on the verge of the nomination without it.

ABOVE ALL, the story of how Romney eluded a deadly assault on his health care record is one of outrageously good luck. At the outset of the race, several candidates were poised to lacerate him over the issue, and none more so than former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty’s advisers believed that health care would become their man’s trump card in a one-on-one matchup against the putative front-runner, assuming Pawlenty survived into the race’s late rounds. While both candidates had passed health care reform bills in their respective states, only Romney had imposed a so-called individual mandate. “We had the record on it,” says one former Pawlenty aide. “I can’t see how, had we stuck around … and we’d been up on stage just the two of us, that wouldn’t have been a central part of the argument.”

But, of course, Pawlenty didn’t stick around. And it was his health care critique-gone-awry that largely proved to be his undoing. During an appearance on Fox News the day before a GOP debate last June, Pawlenty criticized Romney for laying the groundwork for Obama’s health care law, quipping that the president had taken “Romneycare” and turned it into “Obamneycare.” But, when it came time to double-down on the charge with debate moderator John King prompting him and Romney looking on, Pawlenty backed down.

Pawlenty’s inner circle had been split over whether to press Romney on health care so soon, and the candidate’s ambivalence reflected that tension. “I don’t think Republicans, who were desperately anxious to beat Obama, wanted early in the fight to see blood drawn against the front-runner,” says Vin Weber, another Pawlenty adviser. “They wanted these guys to introduce themselves … Pawlenty got up there and understood it.” The problem was that, having telegraphed the attack the day before, Pawlenty suddenly looked weak and indecisive. He would never quite recover and dropped out of the race in August.

Just as Pawlenty was exiting the race, the field was gaining another candidate intent on lashing Romney for his health care sins: Texas Governor Rick Perry. Perry’s advisers noticed that the paperback version of Romney’s campaign manifesto, No Apology, omitted a clause from the original edition enthusing that the success of his Massachusetts health care reform plan could be replicated for “everyone in the country.” The Perry campaign believed the discrepancy would undercut Romney’s insistence that he never intended to take the plan national.

Like Pawlenty, however, the Perry high command suffered from a certain ambivalence about overplaying the accusation, at least in the early going. The campaign assumed its first strategic imperative was to emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney. Then, once the field had narrowed, it could expose Romney’s flaws. “You basically have seven non-Romney candidates running against Romney. Everyone wants to repeal Obamacare and blames Romneycare for being its father,” says Perry’s former chief strategist, David Carney. “It’s hard to differentiate yourself when everyone agrees … As soon as it gets to one or two non-Romney candidates, you have time to make that case.”

It was only in December, after his poll numbers had sagged for several months, that Perry mounted a frontal attack on Romney’s curious book-editing habits during a debate. (Perry had mentioned the book in an earlier debate, but it was in response to a Romney accusation about Perry’s own book, and he didn’t home in on the individual mandate.) It was at this point that something truly freakish happened. Romney took such umbrage at the charge of being a crypto mandate-supporter that he bet Perry “ten thousand bucks” it was false. The response proved to be a perverse form of genius—so strange and tin-eared that it instantly displaced any discussion of the original accusation. “It totally overshadowed it,” says Carney. “We sent out a picture [to reporters], a pdf. It had the two books with the two pages and the line completely deleted … It was totally clear. Not a single person wrote about it.”

In truth, Carney’s pdf wasn’t quite a slam dunk. The language Romney edited out of his book was incriminating, but vague on whether Romney merely wanted to replicate the results of his Massachusetts plan or both the results and the means. To really make the case that Romney was an Obama-esque mandate zealot, a rival campaign would need something like the material Buzzfeed finally publicized. In the USA Today op-ed, Romney wrote that “the lessons we learned in Massachusetts could help Washington” fix the health care system and described the individual mandate as one of those lessons. In a “Meet the Press” appearance that Buzzfeed flagged, Romney clearly proposed scaling up the Massachusetts approach. “We have a model that worked,” he said. “We can do it for the nation.”

As it happens, there was one campaign that had stumbled onto much of this material—that of former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. And, like Pawlenty, Huntsman had the credibility to make the case, having passed a health care reform bill in his state that steered clear of the mandate. But Huntsman never had the money to sustain an attack. “We saw the videos. We didn’t have the resources to do it,” says John Weaver, Huntsman’s chief strategist. Believing the economy was the most important issue, Weaver opted not to spend the little money he had on health care specifically.

Still, as with Pawlenty, Huntsman would have certainly drilled down on the health care issue had he advanced to a late-round showdown with Romney. But, of course, he didn’t, dropping out not long after New Hampshire. In fact, the only three Romney rivals with sophisticated, traditional campaign operations—Pawlenty, Perry, and Huntsman—were all out of the race by mid-January. None of the challengers left standing had much in the way of an opposition-research staff to mine Romney’s health care record or a communications war room to transmit that record to the media and to voters.

IN FAIRNESS, it wasn’t entirely luck that allowed Romney to survive his health care missteps. The Romney campaign, as opposed to the candidate himself, is a highly competent operation skilled at capitalizing on whatever breaks have come its way. For that matter, Team Romney has helped create its own luck in some cases. It turns out Pawlenty had briefly toyed with an individual mandate while working on health care reform in Minnesota. Romney’s camp appears to have leaked evidence of this flirtation to reporters, who promptly wrote it up and put Pawlenty on the defensive.

What’s more, after Pawlenty shied away from his Obamneycare charge in the June 2011 debate, reporters were suddenly filling stories with allegations of wimpiness. It was hard to believe Team Romney had nothing to do with them. “They’re very good at killing the alligator closest to the canoe,” says the first Pawlenty aide. “We were perceived that way.”

But there are limits to how much a tightly run campaign can compensate for a weak candidate. And, at least on health care, those limits will be blindingly obvious during the general election. Obamacare, after all, polls poorly not just among Republicans, but among independent voters as well. It should be a potent weapon for this year’s GOP nominee. But Romney will be hard-pressed to deploy it. “I imagine that during the first debate between Obama and Romney, Obama will say, ‘I’d like to congratulate my opponent for being a lone pioneer in the GOP field [on health care], even though he doesn’t want my praise,’” says Rob Wasinger, another former Huntsman aide. “It’s absolute death for the GOP. We wouldn’t be able to take the biggest issue and use it to win votes this November.”

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation. This article originally appeared in the April 5, 2012 issue of the magazine.