Somewhere, Huckabee’s gleefully rubbing his hands together and nodding.

Three years ago, Romney was heralded for his innovative effort to institute near-universal health care in his state. But now that the issue has emerged as a partisan fault line and the Massachusetts plan has provided some guidance for Democratic reform efforts, Romney finds himself bruised and on the defensive as the GOP rallies around opposition to President Barack Obama’s plans…

It’s not just Romney’s ballot box foes who are taking him to task over his signature accomplishment as governor. His health care program has been lacerated by prominent conservative bloggers and also by the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and National Review, the conservative magazine that endorsed him in the 2008 GOP presidential primary.

“It’s Obamacare with the public option not included,” said Michael Tanner of the libertarian-oriented Cato Institute. “It’s pretty indistinguishable from what the president is proposing.”…

Romney can rightfully boast that he got much what he aimed for, since less than 3 percent of Massachusetts citizens are currently uninsured. But critics insist that the cost of Romney’s program has far exceeded the governor’s estimates and have targeted the plan as a prime example of what not to do on the national level.

Even in Massachusetts there are signs of discomfort with the plan: A June Rasmussen Reports poll found that only 26 percent of Massachusetts voters thought the state’s health care reform was a success.

The threshold question is how much of an issue ObamaCare will still be in two years when the primaries start hopping. Even if it passes, we supposedly won’t start to feel the pain until 2013; if the economy’s still in the toilet, Obama will be vulnerable and centrist Republicans might be willing to hold their noses on RomneyCare to nominate a guy with business and managerial expertise. The big problem for Mitt, I think, isn’t that he passed statewide universal health care. He can spin that in numerous ways to distinguish it from ObamaCare, e.g., it was an amazing victory for small government to keep the public option out of a bill passed in the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, it was passed in the fine tradition of state experimentation and would never be imposed nationwide by a good federalist like Romney, etc etc. The big problem is that he’ll have to spin it at all, a calamitous fate for a guy whose conveniently timed conversion on abortion a few years ago has already convinced an awful lot of Republicans that his conservatism is opportunistic. Huckabee’s going to have that same problem given his prior adventures in nanny-statism and immigration but to a lesser extent than Romney, whose reversal on the core plank of social conservatism has left him forever suspect to a lot of GOPers. The more the 2012 primaries are shaped as a test of who the truest “true conservative” is rather than a test of who has the most thoughtful/effective policy solutions (the answer may be the same in both cases), the more trouble Mitt’s in. I know which way I’m betting.

Update: For precisely the reason just stated, I think the worst thing Mitt could do is repudiate RomneyCare before the primaries. His credibility is a bigger problem for him than the programs he passed; if he turns around and says, “in hindsight, I was wrong and wish we hadn’t done it,” it’ll be a redux of his abortion reversal and he’ll crash and burn. Best to defend the program however he can.