After watching Mitt Romney’s painful speech on health care — in which he strongly defended Romneycare’s individual mandate while denouncing Obamacare as tyranny — I think I’ve got his game plan figured out. Romney knows he’s going to take a massive beating on health reform, so he has decided to get it out of the way now, in hopes it fades as an issue by the time the 2012 GOP primary gets going in earnest.

Romney defied predictions by using this speech to mount a surprisingly spirited defense of the individual mandate. And ironically enough, he actually seemed at his most enthusiastic and genuine when defending that provision — even though it’s also his greatest liability. Because Romney is rightly proud of his achievement, and also because he recognizes the political impossiblity of disavowing his number one accomplishment, he instead doubled down on his only option. He argued — as he has for months — that the mandate was a great idea in Massachusetts but constitutes an unacceptable “power grab” on the federal level.

But this is forcing Romney into an even more awkward spot — one that highlights his other major liability, i.e., the sense that he’s a big phony. Indeed, it was hard to miss the comic disparity in tone between his genuinely enthusiastic defense of the state level mandate and his transparently disingenuous insistence that it’s different from Obama’s federal mandate.

Only seconds after denouncing Obamacare as a “government takeover,” Romney said: “What we were doing in our state was quite different than that. It was a more modest proposal, if you will. We’re not having a government takeover of health care. Instead, we were trying to find a way to get people in our state that didn’t have insurance, insured.”

But of course, that’s exactly what Obamacare’s individual mandate is also designed to do, and conservatives know it. They don’t care about the federal-versus-state distinction that Romney is drawing. Romney’s fundamental problem is that he disagrees with conservatives on an issue of enormous importance to them. He views the mandate on the state level as a genuinely exciting policy idea; conservatives view it as tyranny. On the state or federal level. Romney hopes that forging common ground with conservatives over the federal mandate will get them to overlook his mandate as a minor transgression that’s at odds with his fundamental political and policy instincts.

The problem for Romney is that conservatives will never view his mandate as a minor transgression, and will continue to see it as proof that Romney at his core never has been, and never will be, one of them. No matter how hard he tries to wrap Romneycare’s mandate in the language of states rights and freedom, conservatives will not forgive this fundamental difference.

My guess is Romney knows this at this point. But since this is his only option, he’s putting himself out there to take a beating on the issue now, in hopes that he can talk it to death and get past it.

“That’s the strategic play here,” one GOP operative tells me. “He knows he’s going to get killed on health care. He’d rather get killed today than a month before the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary.” It’s his only hope.