Polls suggest Republicans losing birth control battle, even among Catholics

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WASHINGTON - U.S. President Barack Obama's opponents claim he's "declared war on religion" with his efforts to require employers to provide birth control coverage for their workers.

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum even recently suggested the president was leading America into a secular nightmare where the devoutly religious will face the guillotine. He's also stated publicly that contraception is wrong and poses a threat to the United States.

As is often the case during a presidential election year, America's steadily percolating culture wars are now on full boil. Republicans have cranked up the heat by painting Obama as an anti-religious zealot as they attempt to push through measures in Congress that would result in limited access to birth control for some American women.

And yet a pair of new polls suggest Americans aren't buying it — not even Catholics, whose leaders have led the charge against Obama's birth control mandate.

Their howls of protest forced Obama into a slight concession last week that would require insurers, not the religious organizations themselves, to pay for employees' birth control. Several progressive Catholic figures have praised the administration for the revised mandate.

And a Gallup survey says Obama slipped just three percentage points among Catholics last week as the administration fought publicly with bishops over whether church-affiliated employers should pay for contraception as part of their employees' health plans.

An average of 46 per cent of Catholics told the pollster they approved of Obama's job performance, compared to 49 per cent the previous week. That's within the poll's margin of error.

"Catholics are typically an important swing voting group in U.S. elections, so a president is at some political risk if he pursues a policy that could anger Catholics," Gallup's Jeffrey Jones wrote of the findings on the pollster's website.

"So far, though, it appears the controversy over religious group employer health plans and contraception has not had a significantly negative effect on how rank-and-file Catholics view the president."

A CBS News/New York Times poll released Wednesday also suggests that most Americans, including Catholics, support the Obama administration's original birth control mandate.

Sixty-one per cent of those surveyed said they back federally mandated contraception coverage for employers with religious affiliations, while 31 per cent are opposed.

Among Catholics, the numbers are almost identical — 61 per cent in favour and 32 per cent against. Support is strong even among Catholics who go to church every week, perhaps unsurprising given a recent study that found 98 per cent of Catholic women have used birth control over the course of their lives.

What's even more disturbing for Republicans? Fifty per cent of those who identified themselves as party faithful back the mandate, compared to 44 per cent who are opposed.

Support was particularly strong among women of all demographics.

And that's why so many are perplexed by the Republican strategy on the issue, despite the insistence they've waged a battle to protect religious freedom.

Fifty-four per cent of the electorate in 2008's presidential election were women, and so a Republican campaign framed as one that would lead to limited access to birth control seems doomed to hurt them in November, even if it's launched under the nobler banner of protecting the rights of the religious.

"My mother fought with her priest in the 1940s about birth control, and just decided she wasn't going to listen to anything he had to say on the matter, and so it's just so out of step with reality in 2012," says Dotty Lynch, a professor of public communication at American University in Washington.

There are two elements at play that have caused Republicans to seize upon the mandate ever since the Obama administration announced it last month.

Congressional Republicans are determined to make Obama's health-care reform legislation a key election issue, Lynch says.

So they're arguing the birth control mandate is just another example of a government gone wild, one that's forcing some Americans to abandon their Constitutionally enshrined right to freedom of religion in order to comply with so-called Obamacare.

"It's the whole issue of government mandating anything," she said.

"I've talked to some Democrats who are worried about that themselves; they fear that so little is known about the good things in the plan, and now people know that it apparently forces religious employers to go against their beliefs."

On the campaign trail in the Republican race for the presidential nomination, she adds, candidates are attempting to "out-conservative one another" to appeal to the sizable portion of Christian evangelicals who vote in the party's nominating contests.

Indeed, an October interview with Santorum on an evangelical blog, unearthed on Wednesday, shows the candidate making some startling comments on contraception.

As president, Santorum says, he'd confront the "dangers of contraception" and religious groups who support it.

"It's not OK, because it's a licence to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be," he says. "They're supposed to be within marriage, for purposes that are, yes, conjugal ... but also pro-creative."

Lynch predicts, however, that both front-runner Mitt Romney and Santorum, who's now challenging his rival's position at the head of the pack, will back off as they campaign in the country's so-called Rust Belt, an area heavily populated by blue-collar workers hard-hit by tough economic times.

"They seem to be trying to get off the issue a bit this week and back onto economics," Lynch says.

"If they themselves aren't aware of how this birth control issue plays with women, they're probably being clued in by the women around them in no uncertain terms."

Congressional Republicans even went easy on Obama's heath czar Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday.

Sebelius is among the women in the president's inner circle who won his support for the mandate over reported misgivings about it from Catholics Joe Biden, the vice-president, and Bill Daley, the former Obama chief of staff who quit in early January.

At a congressional hearing into the mandate, Republicans asked polite questions about the revised rule, including whether Sebelius had discussed it with either the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or Planned Parenthood.

She said she hadn't but the president had, and Republicans moved on.

The U.S. Senate has agreed to allow a vote on an amendment to the mandate from Republican Sen. Roy Blunt. His proposals would reverse it entirely and allow all employers to opt out of covering health-care services that violate their religious or moral beliefs.

It's not expected to pass given Democrats control the Senate, and even some Republican senators have expressed support of Obama's revised mandate.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meantime, has also seized upon the debate. It's using the issue to drum up fundraising for the party.

"Republicans are on track to give corporations the power to deny women access to health care," said an email sent Wednesday to potential donors.