WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is casting the contraception controversy as an issue of women's rights, not religious freedom, seizing on what backers see as a political gift from Rush Limbaugh to firm up support from women and young voters, groups essential to his re-election hopes.
He dove deep into the culture wars of American politics by rushing to defend a female law student verbally attacked by the conservative commentator, making a telephone call of support to Georgetown University's Sandra Fluke. It was nothing short of an election-year appeal to a crucial voting bloc.
It also had the political benefit of forcing Republicans to choose between siding with the president and taking what critics view as an extreme position to counter him. Limbaugh, who has an enormous following on the political right, called Fluke a "slut" because the 30-year-old student has been a vocal supporter of access to contraception.
The president's involvement in the debate over contraception, and whether insurers should be required to cover it, helped reignite a political battle from the 1960s and 1970s, and the birth of the religious right. By the 1980s, Christian conservatives were being elected to school boards and city councils. That success formed a foundation for what by the 1990s and 2000s were being called America's "values voters."
Now, as then, the country is trying to determine the government's role in morality.
The latest furor involved putting in place a requirement in the president's health care law mandating that religious-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and universities include free birth control coverage in their employee health plans.
Many Republicans and religious organizations accused Obama of waging a war on religion. As protests mounted, Obama said religious employers could opt out, but insurers must pay for the birth control coverage.
Some Democrats, including Vice President Joe Biden, acknowledged that the Obama administration's rollout of the health care requirement was flawed. But on the substance of the debate, they maintain that the president was on the right side.
Recent polls have supported that assertion.
A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted last month suggested that 72 percent of women support requiring private insurance companies to cover the full cost of birth control for their patients. The poll also showed that 59 percent of men support the requirement.
A fresh opportunity for Obama to portray himself as a champion of women's right surfaced this past week, courtesy of Limbaugh.
Republican lawmakers had barred her from testifying at a House hearing on the contraception measure last month. She was given the chance to talk to Congress on Feb. 23, even though lawmakers were on break and just a few Democratic allies were on hand to cheer her on. Fluke said that Georgetown, a Jesuit institution, does not provide contraception coverage in its student health plan and that contraception can cost a woman more than $3,000 during law school.
On Wednesday, Limbaugh weighed in. "What does it say about the college coed ... who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex."
Aides said Obama, a father of two daughters, read about Limbaugh's comments and wanted to reach out to Fluke to offer his support. After consulting with advisers, Obama called Fluke from the Oval Office on Friday afternoon.
Obama's phone call immediately boosted the pressure on Republican presidential candidates to respond to Limbaugh's comments.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, campaigning Saturday in Ohio, said the crux of the debate was about religious liberty, not contraception. Of Obama's call to Fluke, he said "I think the president will opportunistically do anything he can.
GOP hopeful Rick Santorum told CNN on Friday that Limbaugh was being "absurd", though he added that "an entertainer can be absurd." Mitt Romney tried to steer away from the uproar when asked about the radio host's words after a campaign event in Cleveland.
"It's not the language I would have used," Romney said Friday. "But I'm focusing on the issues that I think are significant in the country today and that's why I'm here talking about jobs in Ohio."
Courting female voters is central to Obama's re-election strategy. He won the White House in part because of a significant gender gap in the general election voting. In 2008, women preferred Obama over Arizona Sen. John McCain, with 56 percent of female voters siding with Obama and 43 percent with the GOP nominee, according to exit poll data.
Obama's 2012 campaign frequently points to polling suggesting a similar trend could be shaping up in 2012. A CNN poll from January showed Obama leading Romney among women nationally, 53 percent to 45 percent. That margin only increased in hypothetical matchups with Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Just on Saturday, all-women Barnard College said Obama would speak at the school's graduation ceremony in May.
Republican strategist John Feehery said the GOP candidates have so far missed an opportunity to forcefully distance themselves from Limbaugh's comments, allowing the president to take advantage.
"He's looking like the hero here," Feehery said of Obama. "If the Republicans were smart, they would have done the same thing: given her a call and said we're sorry about this attack."
Democratic lawmakers are also seeking to capitalize on the Limbaugh's comments. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a letter to supporters that Democrats had raised more than $1.6 million on the contraception issue.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said it was inappropriate to try to raise money off the issue. But the Speaker's office also distanced itself from Limbaugh's comments, saying they, too, were inappropriate.
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