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Democrats lament not making healthcare sale

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Prominent U.S. Democrats conceded on Tuesday they could have done a better job of selling President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul to the public, but said the law could still be an effective campaign issue even if it is struck down by the Supreme Court.

Two days before the high court rules on the law’s constitutionality, congressional Democrats told the Reuters Washington Summit they hoped to put Republicans on the defensive during the campaign for opposing the law’s more popular elements.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on Thursday on a legal challenge to the 2010 law. The court could either uphold it, strike down crucial provisions or overturn the entire law.

But Democrats said even a court decision striking down the law, the signature domestic policy achievement of Obama’s first term, would give them another chance to frame their message on healthcare after fumbling the first attempt.

“I think it’s fair to say that all of us could have done a better job explaining the healthcare bill,” said U.S. Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

He said Democrats had a “powerful” argument to make but were ineffective in explaining the need for an individual mandate requiring everyone to purchase health insurance, as well as the benefits of expanding health insurance coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans and driving down costs.

U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, said she was disappointed that Obama had not taken a stronger role in explaining the law to the public given that he had “the biggest megaphone.”

The healthcare law is being implemented in stages through 2014, but some more popular elements are already in place such as allowing children to stay on their parent’s healthcare plan until age 26.

A Supreme Court decision overturning those provisions could hurt Republicans, said U.S. Representative Steve Israel, head of the Democratic House campaign committee.

“If the Supreme Court strikes down those consumer protections – or reaches any decision that undermines those consumer protections – I believe the Republicans are going to be on defense every day for the next 133 days until the election,” Israel said.

‘IT COULD BOOMERANG’

“So it could boomerang back for us, based on what the Supreme Court decides,” he said.

Israel said the Democratic message on healthcare was drowned out in 2010 by the attacks on the law from the conservative Tea Party movement.

“Too few people to this day understand the benefits. That reflects a focus on policy, which was appropriate to the detriment of the message, which is still hurting us,” Israel said.

Mitt Romney, Obama’s Republican challenger, has promised that on “day one” as president he would repeal the law, derisively called “Obamacare” by Republican critics, if it is upheld by the court.

Recent polls show the public is opposed to the law overall, yet when asked about its provisions they approve of them. Mentions of the healthcare law routinely draw huge boos at Romney rallies and his promises to repeal it draw some of his biggest cheers on the campaign trail.

But Shaheen said individual elements like forcing insurance companies to cover those with pre-existing conditions are far more popular.

“There will be an opportunity to remind people about the changes that have been made as part of this law that they have benefited from,” Shaheen said.

“When you ask people if they want to roll back those provisions, the answer is ‘no.’ So it’s going to be difficult for the Romney campaign to say ‘OK, we’re going to throw out the health insurance reforms, you’re going to go back to being denied healthcare with pre-existing conditions.’ I don’t think people want that,” she said.

U.S. Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio and a potential running mate for Romney, said in place of the law Romney would focus on driving down healthcare costs with medical malpractice reform, allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines and letting groups and individuals pool their purchases.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, backed a broad state healthcare law as governor that served as a forerunner of Obama’s national plan. During the Republican primaries, Romney’s opponents argued that would make him ineffective in delivering the party’s anti-Obamacare message.

Van Hollen said Obama could take advantage of Romney’s experience with healthcare.

“When the president turns to Mitt Romney in the debates and says ‘Romneycare was the basis for Obamacare,’ he’s going to be able to flesh out the reason that what made sense in Massachusetts does make sense for the country,” he said.

Guy Cecil, executive director of the Senate Democratic campaign committee, said Democratic candidates did not do enough to explain the healthcare bill in 2010, when Democrats suffered a stinging defeat, but would be better prepared this time.

“This cycle our candidates are much more prepared to take it on,” he said.