Fifteen minutes into last night’s Republican presidential debate, Michele Bachmann became the first candidate to mention and attack Obamacare. She did so after five other debaters had already spoken, and in response to a question that didn’t explicitly reference the overhaul — thereby immediately establishing repeal as her top priority.

Shortly thereafter, Mitt Romney repeated a claim he made during Monday’s presidential forum, saying, “In our state, our plan covered 8 percent of the people, the uninsured. His [President Obama’s] plan is taking over 100 percent of the people.” But in fact, Romney’s health care overhaul (and the individual mandate at its core) applies to 100 percent of Massachusetts residents, not 8 percent.

Romney also repeated his pledge to issue an executive order immediately upon taking office, which would grant Obamacare waivers to all 50 states. Unfortunately, Rick Perry then echoed that pledge, promising to issue such an executive order “on day-1.” Such waivers, however, would do more harm than good.

After Romney and Perry talked about waivers, Jon Huntsman (to his credit) talked about repeal. Bachmann then forcefully replied, “With all due respect to the governors, issuing an executive order will not overturn this massive law. This will take a very strong, bold leader in the presidency who will lead that effort. None of us should ever have ourselves think that the repeal bill will just come to our desk.”

She added, “This is the issue of 2012, together with jobs….If we fail to repeal Obamacare in 2012, it will be with us forever, and it will be socialized medicine. It must be gone now, and as president of the United States, I won’t rest until I repeal Obamacare.” Her response generated loud applause.

During the same exchange in which he expressed support for Obamacare waivers, Perry struggled somewhat to defend Texas’s record as a state with a high rate of uninsured. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Texas’s uninsured tally is high partly because the state hasn’t allowed Medicaid to balloon and become even more unaffordable (as has happened in Massachusetts and would happen nationwide if Obamacare isn’t repealed). It’s also high in part because of Texas’s high percentage both of illegal immigrants (who count in the uninsured tallies) and of young adults, who often willingly forgo insurance and are attracted to Texas because of its fertile job market.

In response to such questions about the uninsured, Perry would do well to advance a simple, 3-part replacement proposal for Obamacare, which would help Texas and the other 49 states alike. The plan could 1) lower health costs along the lines of the 2009 House GOP health bill (which the Congressional Budget Office says would lower the average American family’s insurance premiums by about $30,000 a decade versus Obamacare (for insurance purchased on the open market)); 2) stop the tax code from discriminating against the uninsured (by giving tax credits to the uninsured); and 3) funding state-run community (“high-risk”) pools (to provide access to coverage for those with prohibitively expensive preexisting conditions).

Later on, in regard to another health care-related matter, Perry took heat all around for his decision to require Gardasil vaccinations for schoolchildren in an attempt to prevent cancer. When it comes to explaining that episode, Perry would be well served to leave it at this: “There was a parental opt-out on that, but it was still a mistake. I can admit my mistakes, and I would never do it again.”

Moments afterward, in one of his most effective, genuine-sounding, and unifying (versus Obama) responses of the night, Romney was asked his opinion about the Gardasil matter. His reply sounded like he was really talking about something else — like maybe, just maybe, he is finally toying with admitting that Romneycare was a colossal mistake from which he has since learned. In a gentle and understanding tone, Romney said:

“My guess is that Governor Perry would like to do it differently the second time through. We’ve each taken a mulligan or two….

“I recognize he wanted very badly to provide better health care to his kids and to prevent the spread of cancer. I agree with those who said he went about it in the wrong way, but I think his heart was in the right place.”

He concluded:

“Right now, we have people who on this stage care very deeply about this country. We love America. America’s in crisis. We have some differences between us, but we agree that this president’s gotta go. This president’s a nice guy; he doesn’t have a clue how to get this country working again.”

Like Bachmann’s pledge to work tirelessly for repeal, this response generated loud applause.

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