Reporting from Manchester, N.H. — Addressing a "tea party" forum Friday night in the first primary state, Mitt Romney defended the healthcare plan he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts but said that some parts hadn't worked.
The GOP front-runner, appearing at the first true multicandidate forum of the 2012 campaign, was asked by the moderator whether, in hindsight, he still supported the plan, which includes a health-insurance mandate similar to the one in President Obama's healthcare program.
"I was hoping I'd get that question," Romney said, with a hint of asperity, as supporters in the audience groaned and others laughed. Romney has steadfastly refused to apologize for the Massachusetts program, which many Republicans think undercuts their plan to zero in on Obama's healthcare program in the 2012 campaign.
Without elaborating, Romney said there were "some things I'd change" about the Massachusetts program. He argued, as he has before, that states should be free to experiment with healthcare programs, but he opposes Obama's "one-size-fits-all" plan.
The president and other Democrats "want to constantly give me credit for their plan. You know, you know that there's method to their madness," Romney said. If he gets to debate Obama in the general election, "I'm going to ask him, 'Mr. President, why didn't you call me and ask me how it" worked out?
"Ours was an experiment," he said. "Some parts didn't work." He added that he "of course will fight to repeal" Obama's plan.
Other candidates addressing the dinner crowd of several hundred Republicans were also asked by Tim Phillips, president of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, about past decisions they had made.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he had changed his position on a cap-and-trade system for energy — and apologized for it.
"Everybody's got a couple of clunkers in their record. That was one of mine. I'm sorry," said Pawlenty, who has been criticized by other Republicans for his past support of the environmental measure.
Afterward, Pawlenty declined to characterize Romney's healthcare plan as a clunker, saying he doesn't criticize fellow Republicans and that other candidates could speak for themselves.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, an avid user of earmarks when he was in Congress, said he had reversed his position on the pet spending projects, which have fallen sharply out of favor with politicians of both parties. He called it "a corrupting influence" and said it had "led to more spending, and it is something that we should get rid of."
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and businessman Herman Cain, who also spoke, weren't asked to atone for any past sins.
The 75-minute event, carried live on C-SPAN, was billed as a "Presidential Summit on Spending and Job Creation." It was the first time Romney and Republican rivals have sat in the same audience and shared a stage since becoming candidates. Earlier this year, the candidates appeared before delegates to a conservative conference in Washington over a three-day period.
All of the candidates were warmly received by the Republican crowd, which included a large number of activists and early supporters of various contenders. The candidates spoke consecutively and did not address one another.
Kurt Wuelper, the head of New Hampshire Right to Life, said he saw Romney's healthcare comments as an improvement on his earlier "mealy-mouthed" position.
"He's owning it, but he's not really defending it," said Wuelper, who is leaning toward Pawlenty. "I'd like to hear [Romney] say it was a mistake and 'I wouldn't do it again,' " he added, but he said that a turnabout of that magnitude would be politically disastrous.
Romney's nomination chances depend heavily on winning in the primary in this next-door state.
Earlier, he used a visit to a local gas station Friday afternoon to criticize Obama over pump prices that are near $4 a gallon here. Romney faulted the administration for not doing more to encourage petroleum drilling and, in a remark to a supporter who was filling his tank, said it would "wonderful" if the country had an energy policy.
Responding to a reporter's question, Romney said he would welcome businessman Donald Trump into the GOP contest.
"The more the merrier," he said. "I like a big, competitive race and I think there may well be one."
Outside the Manchester hotel where Friday night's event took place, a couple of dozen demonstrators protested anti-union conservative policies and financial ties between the conservative Koch brothers and the forum's sponsor.
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a tea party Republican, began the evening by praising New Hampshire's conservative tradition.
"Folks, this feels like South Carolina to me," said DeMint, who has disclaimed any interest in running for president but also spoke recently in Iowa, the earliest-voting state. "Frankly, I think you're more conservative than a lot of folks back in the South."
DeMint also addressed a recent conservative gathering in Iowa, where the first votes in the Republican race will be cast next winter. He was among speakers at the event who defended the GOP contenders against Republicans who say the party is fielding a lackluster group of candidates.
"We've got a great field," the senator said.