WASHINGTON (AP) - Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty said Sunday he would never support requiring everyone to buy health insurance, taking issue with the health care changes that 2012 rival Mitt Romney oversaw as Massachusetts governor.
Pawlenty discounted Romney's argument that, while the federal government went too far in requiring individuals to buy insurance under President Barack Obama's health care law, it was appropriate for states to decide if individual mandates were right for them.
"I strongly oppose the individual mandate at any level," Pawlenty said. "I think it's a dramatic overreach." He noted that he was party to a lawsuit in Florida trying to get the law declared unconstitutional.
Elbowing Romney ahead of a candidates' debate Monday night in New Hampshire, Pawlenty said Obama had stated that "he designed Obamacare after Romneycare and basically made it Obamneycare."
He added, "What I don't understand is they both continue to defend it."
In Boston, Romney's spokeswoman said Pawlenty's jabs miss the point.
"Republicans should keep the focus on President Obama's failure to create jobs and control spending," Andrea Saul said.
Pawlenty said that as governor of Minnesota he had rejected the individual mandate idea and opted for market-based changes that encouraged consumers to make good decisions in choosing health care plans.
Pawlenty's attempt to draw a sharp policy distinction with Romney, the current front-runner in the GOP presidential race, came as he sought to bat down suggestions that he's too nice and too bland to take the political fight to Obama.
Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly said last week that Pawlenty was "invisible" and that ice cream maker Haagen-Dazs could put his picture on vanilla ice cream.
Pawlenty asked "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace whether O'Reilly was "playing the race card on me." Wallace said he thought O'Reilly was discussing "the taste, not the color."
The former Minnesota governor said he had a strong record in running a state, but "being strong is not the same as being loud."
"If you want the clown in chief, vote for somebody else," Pawlenty said. "That's not me."