WASHINGTON – It happens so rarely, it makes news: A few Democratic candidates have started to run television ads daring to defend President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Most Democrats are trying to avoid campaigning on what should have been the party's signature issue, but the lonely bunch who've stuck their necks out may finally be hitting on a message. Some are using constituents to vouch for specific benefits that only recently took effect, changes whose poll-tested popularity isn't in question.
The argument won't stop on Nov. 2. Democrats will have to keep defending the health care law in the next Congress and on into the 2012 presidential and congressional campaign. And they badly need to find their voice with a message that can connect with middle-class voters.
"One thing has helped them," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. "On Sept. 23 a bunch of benefits went into effect, and Democrats had something real to talk about as opposed to theoretical. If they don't talk about it, they'll get attacked, so they might as well put out their own point of view."
The law's big coverage expansion to more than 30 million uninsured people doesn't come until 2014, along with a complete ban on insurers turning away those with medical problems. But people now renewing their plan for next year are already starting to see some benefits, including preventive services without copayments and coverage for young adults up to age 26 on a parent's policy.
There's no authoritative tally of the ads run by Democrats on health care, but a rough count suggests that those who voted against the law are advertising it more than those who supported its hard-fought passage. At least a dozen Democrats have taken pains in their ads to remind constituents that they voted "No."
Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., labeled the plan "Obamacare," adopting the disparaging term Republicans are fond of. And Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., has a new ad that says "he stood up to (Speaker Nancy) Pelosi and Washington insiders and voted against their health care overhaul."
Still, at least seven Democrats have run ads in favor of the new law. Most are in competitive races, and more are cropping up.
They have common themes. Almost all attempt to link Republican opponents to the health insurance industry. They focus on benefits already in effect, such as protection for children against being denied coverage because of medical problems And some use constituents in cameo appearances.
A template of sorts is an ad by embattled Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., first aired around the beginning of the month. It hits all the themes, and finishes with constituents telling his opponent businessman Ron Johnson: "Hands off my health care."
Bring it on, say Republicans.
"I'm all for letting Democrats spend their money defending a bill most people don't want," said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster. "They are talking small-ball stuff, and the American people are looking at the big picture and not liking what they're seeing."
Bolger says Republicans don't have to back off their "repeal and replace" slogan, even if Democrats are becoming bolder about the issue.
But Republicans may have to tweak the message. "You have to make it clear that there are certain elements of the bill that would be in the Republican plan as well," said Bolger. Translation: Small-ball can win a close game, too.
It was eight months ago that Obama and his administration toasted passage of the health care bill — with champagne on the Truman balcony at the White House — and Democrats boasted that voters would hail the law. The party saw it as an achievement that had eluded scores of presidents, and perhaps cost Democrats control of Congress in President Bill Clinton's first midterms.
Obama challenged GOP lawmakers to talk repeal.
"Go for it," he said in Iowa in March. "If these congressmen in Washington want to come here in Iowa and tell small-business owners that they plan to take away their tax credits and essentially raise their taxes, be my guest."
Republicans not only clamored for repeal, state attorneys general took the fight to the federal courts.
Last week, a judge in Florida allowed a lawsuit to advance, ruling that the constitutionality of the law's requirement for most Americans to carry coverage deserves to be fully debated. Earlier, a judge in Michigan dismissed a similar challenge.
And controversy over the law's ripple effects continues. In a letter obtained by The Associated Press on Monday, Boeing became the latest company to signal a potential downside for insured employees, citing the legislation as part of the reason it's shifting more medical costs to workers next year.
Whether standing up for health care overhaul in their ads will help any Democratic candidates remains to be seen. But several in competitive races are gambling that it will. They include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Reps. Dina Titus of Nevada, Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota and Scott Murphy of New York.
Murphy's ad directly challenges the Republican call for repeal with a self-styled "reality check" that implies his opponent would bring back pre-existing condition denials, lifetime dollar limits on coverage and copayments for mammograms and colon screenings, while leaving the Medicare prescription coverage gap in place. The law begins to close the so-called doughnut hole next year.
Murphy rival Chris Gibson, a retired Army colonel, has run extensive ads calling for health care repeal.
"I wouldn't say this ad is defensive," responded Josh Schwerin, a Murphy spokesman. "It's the other side of the argument. It's very important for people to understand what repeal means."