Obamacare in the RI Congressional Race: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

Last week's Supreme Court decision upholding health care reform yielded a flurry of statements from Rhode Island pols, including the three contenders in the state's marquee race this cycle: Congressman David Cicilline, his Democratic challenger Anthony Gemma, and Republican candidate Brendan Doherty.

In the swirl of events, it seemed likely that the issue would become a significant one in the campaign. And as I wrote in this space the day of the decision, the Cicilline and Doherty camps were already trying to stuff the issue into their broader campaign frames.

The Cicilline campaign was attempting to make Doherty's opposition to the law a sign of his fealty to the right wing of his party; Doherty was trying to cast Obamacare as another example of the hyperpartisan politics he would stamp out as Rhode Island's reasoned moderate.

And you may see more of these arguments if the partisans poll on the issue and see a real advantage among independents, either way. But at the moment, public opinion seems pretty divided.

National polls show Americans split down the middle on the Supreme Court ruling. And while President Obama's health care policies remain unpopular among independents (just 38 percent said they view those policies favorably in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll), presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's health care approach is even more unpopular (just 26 percent support it).

With no clear edge for either side, there may be little incentive for Messrs. Cicilline, Gemma, and Doherty to make healthcare reform central to the campaign.

Of course, if the national political debate makes the issue a critical one, the local combatants may be forced to engage, to some degree. Here's the thing, though: Romney's campaign is sending early signals that it won't make Obamacare a major issue in the presidential election, even though it's an unpopular law that has galvanized the GOP base in the past.

Why? The Romney camp, no doubt, is poring over the wishy-washy national polling data. But it may be uncomfortable making the argument against Obamacare, anyhow, since the law was modeled on legislation Romney pushed through as governor of Massachusetts.

Whatever the rationale, Romney seems intent on keeping the focus on the economy and little else. President Obama, meanwhile, is doing all he can to change the subject - to women's issues, to immigration, to student loans, to anything that will gin up support among his key demographics.

That same fight - overlaid with a debate on Cicilline's trustworthiness - may, in the end, rule the day here. Momentous Supreme Court decisions notwithstanding. 

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