NH GOP chair defends Mitt Romney on health care

Holly Bailey

Amid attacks from his potential GOP rivals, Mitt Romney has a found a surprise defender of his Massachusetts health care program: the chairman of the New Hampshire state GOP, who happens to be a prominent tea partier.

In an interview with CNN, Jack Kimball, the newly-elected chairman of the Granite State GOP, says people are making too big of a deal of Romney's health care plan, which bears more than a passing similarity to President Obama's controversial bill.

"It really was an innovative experiment," Kimball said of Romney's bill. "He's a very smart man and what he did was he came up with this program geared for the state of Massachusetts, it was never meant to be some model for a national health care program."

Kimball's comments come amid criticism from Romney's likely 2012 rivals, including former Sen. Rick Santorum, over the legislation. The former Massachusetts governor signed the legislation into law five years ago today, which prompted Democrats to sponsor events today offering a "thank you" to Romney for the bill.

Romney, who officially kicked off his 2012 bid for the GOP nomination Monday, has distanced himself from the bill--both publicly and privately.

As Kimball told CNN Monday, Romney has reaffirmed to him privately that he supports a "complete repeal" of Obama's health care plan "as recently as a few weeks ago."

"Each state should come up with their own plan," Kimball said.

Kimball didn't go quite as far as another prominent leader in the tea party movement, Sen. Jim DeMint, who initially defended Romney on health care, too. But in a subsequent interview, an aide close to DeMint, who supported Romney in 2008, said the South Carolina senator wouldn't offer a 2012 endorsement unless the ex-governor apologized for the Massachusetts bill.

Romney, who rarely brings up the legislation unless he's asked about it, has said through a spokesman that he's "proud" of the bill he passed in Massachusetts. In response to White House efforts to link it to so-called "Obamacare," Romney has pushed back, saying the president should have consulted with him first.

(Photo of Romney: Mary Schwalm/AP)