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Red vs. blue: The battle lines of 2014

Feb 26, 2014 - By Doyle McManus

Obamacare will be in the picture, but it won't be the only election issue.

The conventional wisdom is that this fall's congressional election will be all about Obamacare. Republicans, it's argued, will try to expand their majority in the House and take the Senate with a campaign focused mostly on the failings of President Obama's health insurance law; Democrats will fire back with warnings that the GOP would simply repeal the law and leave consumers on their own.

But the conventional wisdom is wrong. Obamacare will be a major issue this fall, but so will the economy and a host of other issues, including immigration and -- if Democrats have their way -- pay equity for women. Over the last two weeks, leaders of both parties have staked out new ground on which they plan to fight in the nine months until Election Day.

Let's take the Republicans first. They still hope to make the election a referendum on Obama, which makes sense given the president's low job-approval ratings. But they're going after more than just Obamacare.

"It wasn't Obamacare that made it possible for us to win in 2010," noted David Winston, a GOP pollster who has advised House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. "It was the economy."

That's why Boehner recently revived a mantra he uttered over and over during the 2010 campaign: "Where are the jobs?"

"In every poll, the biggest issue for most voters is the economy and jobs," Winston said. And, he added, many voters who once blamed George W. Bush for the recession now blame Obama for the sluggish recovery.

Republicans will also campaign against Obamacare, of course, but if Boehner and other GOP leaders have their way, they'll go beyond merely calling for the health law's repeal.

"There needs to be a Republican alternative," Winston said.

Three GOP senators already have proposed a conservative health insurance plan that resembles Obamacare in some respects but on a far smaller scale, covering fewer people, offering smaller subsidies, and providing only a partial guarantee of coverage for pre-existing conditions.

The reason for the shift in strategy is easy to see. Even though Obamacare is widely unpopular, polls show that a solid majority of voters don't want to repeal the law entirely; they'd rather fix it instead.

Besides, Boehner and his lieutenants are also hoping to free the House GOP from the image of obstructionism it earned last fall, when tea party conservatives forced the federal government to close for 16 days in an abortive attempt to ban funding for the healthcare plan.

That episode drove the GOP's popularity to an all-time low. The futile exercise of voting to repeal Obamacare again and again didn't help either.

"It's a different (Republican) conference now," Winston said. "The shutdown taught everyone some lessons. The question now is, how do we move things forward so we can offer voters a credible alternative?"

As for the Democrats, they face an uphill battle in their struggle to win back a majority in the House and retain their majority in the Senate.

They can't run on the state of the economy, because most voters aren't convinced that the recovery is durable.

Indeed, when Obama argued in his State of the Union address that the economy was improving, even some of his supporters were unimpressed.

But Obama's speech offered a preview of several other themes likely to figure in Democrats' pitches to voters this fall: an increase in the federal minimum wage, more federal aid to education and a focus on women's issues.

Democratic strategists hope Obama's call for an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour will be a "wedge issue" that divides the Republican opposition. Polls show the proposal is not only immensely popular among Democrats; it's also supported by about half of Republican voters.

Education is another issue on which many GOP voters are torn. That's why Obama spent much of the last week campaigning for his education initiatives, including a project to provide high-speed Internet to most schools.

And Obama spent a big chunk of his State of the Union speech calling for new legislation to discourage wage discrimination against women, a proposal with few prospects of passing either the House or the Senate.

But that demand, Democratic strategists said, wasn't aimed at persuading Congress to pass legislation; it was aimed at reminding women, a key part of the Democratic electorate, that conservative Republicans are standing in their way.

"One factor we're counting on is that, at some point, the Huckabees will come out," said one Democratic advisor. He was referring to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's dismissal of women who wanted contraceptive coverage in health-care plans because "they cannot control their libido without the help of the government."

That wouldn't be the most elegant way for the president's party to hold on to its majority in the Senate.

"But it's happened in the past," the strategist said, noting the GOP candidates who self-destructed in 2010 and 2012.

Besides, whoever said American politics was elegant?

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Editor's note: Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him e-mail at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

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