The American people want Obamacare to be repealed. Republicans in particular consider the fate of Obamacare to be the most important thing at stake in the upcoming presidential election. Most independents share the Republicans’ view that Obamacare must go, and even some Democrats concur. In light of this, one wonders: Where is this same sense of conviction, determination, and prioritization among many of the Republican party’s leading lights?

Rather than run for president and thereby lead the effort to repeal a terrible piece of legislation, Rep. Mike Pence (speaking on behalf of himself and his family) declared, “In the choice between seeking national office and serving Indiana in some capacity, we choose Indiana.” Rather than seek the presidency by emphasizing his patriotic duty to secure repeal, Mitch Daniels said, “There’s one sentence .  .  . for which a father has no reply, which is, ‘Daddy, please don’t.’ ” Rather than running and heeding George Washington’s advice (“The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations”), Chris Christie said, “I have a commitment to New Jersey that I simply will not abandon.”

So, just three short months before the first votes are cast, where does that leave us? While the mainstream press focuses on the economy, which was not the principal cause of the Democrats’ sweeping defeat last year, here’s a prediction: The Republican presidential race will ultimately be decided by which candidate the Republican rank-and-file thinks is most likely to achieve the goal of repealing Obamacare and replacing it with something consistent with the principles of limited government, liberty, and fiscal responsibility.

Achieving that outcome will require a series of sequential victories. A candidate must first win the GOP nomination. He must then beat President Obama​—​the most crucial victory. As president, he must push repeal legislation through the Senate. That will require him to have generated momentum by emphasizing repeal during the campaign, and to show the determination and skill after the election to see things through to their completion. Another step, less urgent but still crucial, is this: He must be willing to spearhead sensible replacement legislation that will lower health costs and reduce the number of uninsured.

While candidates debate a myriad of issues, and while their campaigns sweep across the early primary states, most Republican voters will be sizing up the potential nominees on this basis: Which contender is the most likely to achieve these goals? This is not to deny the importance of other issues, particularly the economy, foreign policy, and the pressing social issues of our day. But the candidates’ positions on such issues will be evaluated not only on their own merits but also for what they say about the candidates’ ability to win and thereby do away with Obamacare.

Mitt Romney has the upper hand in the quest to convince Republican voters that he is the man to bring about repeal. He is the only member of the current field who was in the top tier last time. He has a solid presidential résumé, having served as governor of an above-average-sized state. His look and demeanor befit a president. But for Romney to win the nomination, he will likely have to raise his game on health care.

Most Republican voters believe, with good reason, that Romney stands a strong chance of winning the nomination and beating President Obama. The question is whether he would put repeal front and center​—​whether he would emphasize it in the general election campaign, and whether he would go to the mat for repeal once in office. Would Romney’s campaign build enough momentum for repeal to achieve 60 votes in the Senate and defeat a potential filibuster? If not, would Romney be willing to advance repeal in the Senate via reconciliation, the complicated and unconventional process that takes only 50 votes but which would also require a far greater expenditure of political capital? Moreover, given his experience in Massachusetts, could Romney be trusted with designing and implementing Obamacare’s replacement?

So far, the available evidence doesn’t particularly help Romney’s case. His economic plan calls for the full repeal of Obamacare, but a repeal bill isn’t among the five pieces of legislation that he has pledged to advance on his first day in office. His answers on the Massachusetts health bill have been evasive and unconvincing. He has yet to address health care in a way that inspires confidence going forward.

There is a way out for Romney, however. He could stop defending his health care bill as a matter of policy, freely admitting its shortcomings instead of stubbornly singing its praises. He could note that he was serving as governor of arguably the most liberal state in the country, and he gave​—​and admittedly spearheaded the efforts to give​—​the voters of that state exactly what they wanted. He could make clear that he not only wouldn’t want such legislation to be implemented nationally, he also wouldn’t want it to be implemented in other states​—​not only because it’s far too government-centric but because he has learned from his experience. He could highlight that his efforts in Massachusetts (like Obamacare) focused on covering people, and therefore did nothing to lower costs and instead increased them. He could convey that the experience has taught him that real health care reform must focus on lowering costs by fostering greater competition and choice. That, in turn, would make affordable care available to more people. Finally, Romney could make clear his insistence that any replacement legislation must employ this cost-first approach​—​thereby demonstrating that, unlike the current president, he can learn from his mistakes.

If Romney does this, he will likely win. If he fails to do it, however, he will encourage an open competition in which Republican voters will evaluate the candidates whom they more fully trust on repeal-and-replace, appraising them on the basis of the first two criteria listed above: their ability to win the nomination and beat Obama.

For the fast-rising Herman Cain, and for the fading Rick Perry, this will mean that Republican voters will focus on their debating skills. Each must convince voters that his political judgment, his knowledge of issues and events, and his ability to think and react on his feet are up to the challenge. For Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who have shown themselves to be worthy debaters, voters will be looking for further evidence of wit, charm, and good-natured interaction​—​in short, for evidence that they could win over independents.

While much of the talk, especially in the mainstream press, will continue to focus on other aspects of this race, it’s worth remembering this: Republican voters are far more committed to repealing and replacing Obamacare than many of their party’s highest-profile leaders would appear to be. And in the end​—​to paraphrase William F. Buckley Jr.​—​they will ensure that their nominee is the person most committed to repeal who can win.

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