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GOP advantage on health care complicates if Mitt Romney is Republican nominee

JACKSONVILLE — The candidates have circled the issue for months, throwing bantam punches that mostly missed. During Thursday night's GOP presidential debate, Rick Santorum broke through with an aggressive dismantling of Mitt Romney on health care.

"Your mandate is no different than Barack Obama's mandate. It is the same mandate," Santorum said. "Folks, we can't give this issue away in this election. It is about fundamental freedom."

Romney until that point had delivered a performance that re-established his claim to the Republican nomination — a goal he could leap toward Tuesday by winning Florida's primary.

But Santorum drew fresh attention to a weakness that has long shadowed Romney. While he rails against "Obamacare," the similarities with the plan Romney implemented as governor of Massachusetts — "Romneycare," as Santorum called it — could deflate a contrast Republicans are eager to draw in the general election with President Obama.

It's easy to imagine Democratic ads juxtaposing Romney's campaign rhetoric with his support of the plan in Massachusetts, which is widely popular among residents, and was a template for the federal law.

"It's the Et tu, Brute strategy," said Alex Castellanos, a national Republican strategist who worked for Romney in 2008. "You try to kill somebody by trying to hug them and get as close as possible. It's smart politics. It just doesn't happen to be true." (story here)