Jennifer Rubin interviews MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, the man more responsible for helping Mitt Romney create Romneycare than anyone else, and comes away with two nuggets that aren’t exactly going to help Romney in the 2012 GOP primary.

First, Gruber punctures Romney’s repeated claims that Romneycare is different from the Affordable Care Act because one is state-based and the other is federal, noting that without Romneycare’s embrace of the individual mandate — which is now despised by conservatives — Obamacare would never have happened:

It is “sad,” says MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, that presidential candidate Mitt Romney is running away from his Massachusetts health care plan, a plan that Gruber says “gave birth to one of the greatest pieces of social legislation in our history,” namely President Obama’s 2010 health-care reform legislation.

It is equally true in Gruber’s mind that without the Massachusetts example, Obama’s individual mandate plan in all likelihood would not have passed...In his opinion, without the Massachusetts plan the federal individual mandate plan wouldn’t have garnered acceptance and gotten through. “It was huge,” Gruber says, to have the Massachusetts plan to point to. And without it, he thinks “it’s likely” ObamaCare wouldn’t have become law.

And second, Gruber says that during internal debates over Romneycare, Romney was an aggressive champion of the individual mandate:

Gruber tells me, “What I can tell you is that there was an active debate on the individual mandate.” He explains, “On one hand, Romney felt people were free-riding” on the health care system — that is, remaining uninsured but burdening the government health care system when they became sick or injured. On the other hand, Gruber says, was the “freedom” argument about the mandate. He says, “What I’d like to think carried the day was that I pointed out that without the mandate you would spend the same money and cover fewer people.”

Gruber says in the one face-to-face meeting he had with Romney, it was clear Romney had made the “final call.” Gruber tells me: “He was the champion of the plan. He really was the consummate management consultant.”

What’s particularly telling here is that according to Gruber, Romney at the time championed the individual mandate as what he saw as a triumph of management — that is, of executive leadership. People forget this, but Romney’s health plan in Massachusetts was widely viewed as one of his qualifications for national office. Now it’s one of his greatest liabilities.

Asked for comment, Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul declined to discuss Gruber’s claims, saying only:

Mitt Romney is proud of what he accomplished for Massachusetts in getting health insurance to everyone, but as he has said many times what works in Massachusetts doesn’t necessarily work in other states. That’s why he has called for the repeal of Obamacare and continues to advocate for a state-by-state federalist approach to healthcare reform.

Short of repudiating Romneycare’s individual mandate completely, this explanation is Romney’s best shot at getting around his Romneycare problem. But the fact remains that conservatives don’t care about the distinction he’s making here — they view the individual mandate as tyranny, whether it’s used on the federal or state level. And it certainly won’t help that Romney’s number one point man on Romneycare is now dismissing the distinction as bogus, too.