Fast forward to Candidate Romney’s Michigan speech in May 2011, in which he outlined his own health care plan focusing on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. “What Romney’s speech needs to say,” announced Politico’s headline, and the website then offered four possible messages: “I swear it’s different than Obamacare;” “Mea culpa, Sort of;” “Here’s why I could stomach the mandate;” and “Seriously, I’m offering something new here.”

Romney did not apologize for signing the law; instead, he invoked a states’ rights argument. While the mandate was good for Massachusetts, it might not be good for Mississippi, he argued, sprinkling his words with big-government overtones. The founding fathers did not want a “king-like structure” grounded in central government, Romney said, adding that, on his first day as president, he would sign an executive order to help states exit from the Affordable Care Act.

Fast forward again to February 2012. In a much-publicized talk at the Detroit Economic Club, Candidate Romney moved far away from the individual mandate and the model he once supported:

I will look at every government program and ask this question: Is this so critical that it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? Of course, we’ll start with the easiest cut of all: Obamacare, a trillion-dollar entitlement we don’t want and can’t afford. It’s bad medicine, bad policy, and when I’m President, the bad news of Obamacare will be over.

But the media focused neither on Romney’s clever phrasing nor on the substance of what he said, and laced in stuff about the horse race that Romney might win. They sort of reported his positions on Medicare and Social Security. An AP story didn’t touch on Obamacare at all. The Detroit Free Press didn’t list health reform in its bullet points describing what was in Romney’s speech; its story said that no other details were available in the preview the paper got from the Romney campaign. The topic came up in pre-arranged audience questions, but the candidate tip-toed around it saying only “The first thing I’d say to him (Obama) is ‘You say you copied (the Massachusetts law,) how come you didn’t give me a call? I’d have told you what worked, what did not work.’”

Endnote: As the Romney-as-flip-flopper frame continues to intrigue the press, recall that Obama changed his mind, too. Early in his White House quest, he favored a requirement to cover only children and later moved to a full-blown requirement to catch everyone after his rivals supported it, and political forces pushed him to agree to it—the same political forces that pushed Romney to accept the mandate in 2006. And now conservatives in the GOP and the political and business interests they represent are pushing Romney away from the plan he once called a “Republican way of reforming the market.” That’s the real mandate story, and it’s far, far away from the opp artist gotcha spin du jour.

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Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.