WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's long-sluggish poll numbers have inched up, the unemployment rate has dropped five months in a row, the stock market shows signs of life and the Republican presidential contenders are slicing each other up in a primary battle that shows no sign of ending soon.
Yet just as some analysts have begun to suggest a sunnier political outlook for the president's re-election prospects, the White House is engaged in a highly charged dispute with Republicans and Catholic leaders over its mandate that religious institutions must provide contraceptives in their health care coverage. Opponents say it's government overreach that tramples religious freedom for those opposed to contraception as a matter of religious principle.
However, pollsters and strategists say the controversy — and the push for contraceptive coverage for all women — is a political plus with at least one key target audience: young, female voters, a large portion of the electorate.
"Contrary to conventional wisdom, this is a good fight," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, whose surveys have found that voters across the board — including Catholic voters — support access to contraceptives. "It's a total win for the administration."
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Lake argues that the decision benefits the White House by giving Obama a tangible benefit from his controversial health care plan and has the potential to motivate pro-choice voters.
But with Catholic leaders mounting vociferous opposition, a number of Democrats are distancing themselves from the White House on the issue. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who faces a tough re-election campaign, said Thursday that he "wants to make sure women's health is protected," a spokesman said, but he also believes that church-affiliated organizations should be exempt from the mandate.
Obama twice Thursday declined to answer reporters' questions about the decision, but some congressional Democrats hailed it as key to women's health.
"I think America's women are overwhelmingly going to support the president's decision," New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said on MSNBC.
The administration insisted Wednesday that Obama is "absolutely firm" about offering the coverage to all women, but is "sensitive" to allaying some of the concerns raised by religious groups.
The contraceptive stance — like Obama's decision to reject the controversial Keystone oil pipeline from Canada — appears aimed at resonating with the Democratic base, said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College poll in New York.
"That seems to be the playbook. He's acting consistently with what the base wants," Miringoff said. "That seems to be the strategy of the White House in a year where people are somewhat frustrated, turnout may be low — make sure your base is there."
But he added that the White House has "let the issue get away from it" and needs to reach a resolution. "I would think they will want to turn the page on this and find a way to do it soon," he said.
Analysts suggest the controversy feeds into a narrative that Republicans have nurtured of Obama: That he's a big-government liberal with little respect for religious values.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee put up a petition: "The Democrats are using Obamacare to force religious groups to defy their deeply held beliefs," its website says. "Where has our Freedom gone?"
Political analyst Charlie Cook, who in a National Journal column this week said that Obama's prospects for re-election are looking better, suggested that the contest over the contraceptive decision will be won by who can frame the issue best.
"If it is framed as a fight over contraception, President Obama wins and the Church and opponents of the rule lose," Cook said in an e-mail. "If it is perceived as a fight over religious freedom, the Church and rule opponents win and Obama loses."
The dustup comes as the president's campaign points to the fractious Republican primary process as a potential bonus. Obama's campaign pollster, Joel Benenson, argued in a memo Wednesday after Rick Santorum won three contests that Republican turnout has lagged in nearly every state, and that Mitt Romney's "effort to woo conservative voters is hurting him with independents."
He cited an ABC/Washington Post poll that found by a margin of better than 2-to-1, voters said that "the more they hear about Romney, the less they like about him."
Obama's campaign, however, says it is concerned about the fundraising success the GOP has had with the "super" political action committees that have pledged tens of millions to defeat him.
Super PACs are independent groups that have mushroomed since a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 permitted corporations and others to donate and spend unlimited amounts on a candidate's behalf, often with the sources undisclosed.
The president reversed himself earlier this week and threw his support behind super PACS backing him — groups he once denounced as a "threat to democracy." The reversal opened Obama up to charges that he's abandoned his 2008 campaign pledge to change politics, but campaign officials said the success of the GOP groups — and threats to raise millions more — forced their hand.
"He's not saying the system is good, his campaign is making a decision that the rules are what the rules are and Democrats can't play by different rules," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
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