WASHINGTON (AP) — The dustup over contraception underscored President Barack Obama's political edge in working to attract independent voters without alienating his Democratic base. His Republican rivals are forced to keep emphasizing their conservative credentials to attract the right-leaning activists who dominate the nominating contests.
It's a dynamic that usually plays out when a president seeks re-election without a primary challenger, and the other party fights to determine its nominee.
Obama already is in general-election mode, with the luxury of courting voters who don't ascribe to a political party. The eventual Republican nominee is moving to the right and probably will have to edge back toward the center in the fall. The farther he must go to the fringe to win the nod, however, the tougher his task.
The difference was clear Friday, at events two miles apart in Washington.
At the White House, Obama made a carefully calibrated concession to Catholics angered by his decision to require religious-affiliated employers, including Catholic hospitals and colleges, to cover birth control in their health insurance plans. The president tweaked the rule Friday. He said insurance companies would provide contraceptive benefits directly to employees, technically leaving employers out of the transaction.
White House and Obama campaign officials were relieved by the initial reaction.
Groups such as Planned Parenthood, which privately had urged no changes, praised the move. More important, so did the influential Catholic Health Association of the United States, whose criticism of the original rule spelled trouble for Obama's team.
At the same time across town, three of the four GOP presidential candidates appeared separately at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a major annual gathering of activists on the political right. Each tried to out-do the other in proclaiming conservative fealty.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum criticized Obama's contraception policy. They painted themselves as conservative crusaders on a range of issues.
Romney drew snickers by saying he was a "severely conservative governor." Gingrich said the Obama administration "is waging war on religion."
Santorum, who built much of his national profile by fighting legalized abortion, said Obama is "telling the Catholic Church that they are forced to pay for things that are against their basic tenets and teachings."
"It's not about contraception," he said. "It's about economic liberty. It's about freedom of speech. It's about freedom of religion."
Democrats hope independent voters will see it differently. Americans, including Catholics, overwhelmingly embrace birth control. Obama's goal was to reframe his policy as a matter of equal access to preventive health care, not a quarrel about religious or economic rights.
"I think the president ended up looking like the responsible person in the room," said Lanae Erickson of the Democratic-leaning group Third Way, which has studied independent voting trends. "The Republican primary candidates went way out on a limb and will alienate themselves with independent voters," she said.
The CPAC speeches were standard fare for such conservative gatherings, and they may not matter much in November. But Democrats will try to use the remarks to portray the eventual GOP nominee as out of touch with middle America.
For now, they're focusing mainly on Romney, who won Saturday's straw poll at CPAC and the Maine GOP caucuses.
"Mitt Romney and the rest may think that catering to the tea party set and Rush Limbaugh is the only way to win the nomination, but the eventual nominee is going to pay a huge price for that approach with swing voters in the fall," said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee."
Campaign strategists endlessly debate the right balance between pursuing independents versus firing up the party base. Karl Rove broke new ground in 2004 by placing considerably more emphasis on the Republican base, which propelled President George W. Bush to a second term.
Obama's 2008 victory, however, was built on the more traditional formula of focusing extensively on independent voters while doing as much as possible to keep his party's liberal activists energized. Since then, Obama has struggled to overcome their disappointment.
The shift on the Catholic-contraception issue appears modest enough to cause few ripples. But Obama infuriated some liberal groups by dropping plans to tighten ozone restrictions and to have a government-run health insurance provider.
Erickson said Obama can ill afford to appease liberals with left-leaning moves that would alienate independents. As public disenchantment with Congress has soared in the past few years, she said, the ranks of independents have swelled at the Democratic and Republican parties' expense.
"This year is going to have the highest independent turnout in modern political history," Erickson said.
The GOP primary contest shows no sign of wrapping up soon.
The longer it goes on, the more time Obama has to make overtures to independents who, as Erickson put it, "will be the kingmakers in this election."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Charles Babington covers politics and the presidential campaign for The Associated Press.