TARGETING CENTRISTS…. As has become clear of late, congressional centrists will help dictate whether health care reform passes this year, and if so, what it will look like. With that in mind, it was of particular interest to see some of their reactions to President Obama’s speech. By most indications, the left was pleased with last night’s address, and the right wasn’t. But what about Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe?

For his part, Nelson seemed impressed. “The President is clearly determined to achieve bipartisan health care reform this year, and I was pleased he outlined more specifics of his plan,” the Nebraskan Democrat said in a statement.” I applaud him for embracing ideas pushed by both Republicans and Democrats as he reaches toward consensus on one of the most troubling, costly and long-delayed problems for Nebraska’s families, workers and small businesses.”

Nelson later added that he thinks the Obama speech “was a bit of a game changer.” This is a lot more encouraging than what we were hearing from Nelson before the speech.

Snowe said she would have preferred that the public option be taken off the table. Snowe added, however, that she’s “encouraged” that Obama “recognized that we cannot leave this imperative to chance – and acknowledged the safety net plan I have proposed is a ‘constructive’ idea ‘worth exploring.’ Such a fallback plan would be offered if, after we have implemented landmark insurance market reforms, private insurers fail to deliver the affordable coverage Americans require.”

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), meanwhile, who hasn’t exactly been a friend to the reform campaign, also signaled satisfaction with the president’s remarks: “I think the speech was very helpful because the President was very clear, he wants to reach across the party divide, to work together, to achieve a result that’s critically important for the country. You know really, here, failure is not an option.”

What’s more, Suzy Khimm noted that while the talk about malpractice reform probably won’t move GOP votes, it may have impressed some Blue Dogs in the House.

Congressman Bart Gordon, who had been one of the Blue Dog holdouts in the House, devoted his entire reaction statement to the subject, expressing his pleasure that Obama had “talked about the problem of defensive medicine.” To be sure, Gordon had personally authored a last-minute amendment to the House bill that provided incentive payments to states to “reduce frivolous lawsuits” without capping malpractice awards. But other Blue Dogs (like Mike Ross) and more moderate Republicans (like George Voinovich) share this concern, which had up until now played only a marginal role in the mainstream reform debate. Yes, some leading policy analysts have cast significant doubt on whether tort reform will actually rein in health care costs. But if its inclusion in the bill takes the limited form that Obama suggested, it could be the kind of concession that would help get Obama’s moderate Democratic allies fired up to support the bill.

Something to keep an eye on.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.