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Diner Exchange Underlines Voters' Health-Care Concerns

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By Perry Bacon Jr. and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 4, 2007

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Michele Griffin didn't want to hear Mitt Romney talk about how to fight the spread of AIDS around the world.

"What about our nation? How 'bout the USA? C'mon!" yelled Griffin, who has worked for more than 12 years behind the counter of the Red Arrow Diner, a popular stop for presidential candidates.

For the next 10 minutes Romney tried to respond, describing his approach to health care when he was the Republican governor of Massachusetts, while Griffin kept interrupting him with comments such as "After we pay our huge deductibles for our insurance and our cost for our prescriptions, there's nothing left."

Eventually, Romney's message -- criticizing European-style "socialized medicine," attacking Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's health-care efforts in the 1990s and praising the virtues of private insurance -- got through.

It was a relatively brief exchange but an emotional one, and a snapshot of an issue that could play an important role in the presidential primaries in both parties.

Rising costs, the growing number of people without insurance and general frustration with the system are all reasons that health care keeps surfacing at candidate forums and campaign appearances. Large businesses such as Safeway and Wal-Mart, once wary of government intervention in health care, are pushing for universal coverage, as are many Republican officials, particularly California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"Health care is going to be a top domestic issue, if not the top domestic issue," in the general election, said Dean Rosen, a health-care policy expert who was a top adviser to former Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Surveys show that Democratic voters rank health care behind only the economy and the war in Iraq in their priorities; Republicans rank it lower. But "polls that require voters to itemize their priorities don't tell the whole story," said Kevin Madden, Romney's spokesman. "It's a quality-of-life concern as well as an economic concern that affects the bottom-line budget of so many American households."

Griffin, who has a daughter with Crohn's disease and another who is diabetic, also confronted another 2008 hopeful, Democratic Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), when he came to the Red Arrow. But she is not the only voter with a personal story on health care.

"We have all kinds of settings where people tell us their personal stories," said Jennifer Hanley, a Clinton aide who often travels with the Democratic senator from New York to the early primary states.

The responses vary widely, befitting an issue that evokes both strong passion and sharp disagreement. Romney, as he did at the diner, often notes his work in Massachusetts to pass a law that requires everyone in the state to purchase health insurance and provides subsidies for those who cannot afford it on their own.

Clinton speaks of her failed effort in 1993 but also reminds voters of her work on a bill in the Senate that would ban insurance companies from denying coverage to people because of pre-existing conditions.

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