Across the Capitol, one rising star made clear the matter was a starkly political issue in the year's presidential and congressional elections.
"We have plenty of other issues to take to the American people throughout the year and in the November elections. This doesn't have to be one of them," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in English. As he often does, Rubio repeated his statement in Spanish — an effort to make sure Hispanic voters in Florida and beyond, many of them Catholic, got the message.
But where Republicans cast the White House's contraception policy as an assault on the freedom of religion itself, Democrats argued for the preservation of affordable birth control for women. The White House circulated letters from women's groups defending the policy and signaled on Tuesday that a compromise was possible.
Former Obama aide Jen Psaki suggested the uproar was due in part to the GOP nomination fight, noting that the administration's directive requiring church-affiliated employers to cover birth control for their employees was based on a policy used by many states.
"Where has the outrage been up to now?" Psaki said.
On the presidential campaign trail, the GOP candidates competing for conservative votes presented themselves as foes of any efforts to remove religion and morals from public discourse. Some described those efforts in the language of war.
Romney, a Mormon, is embracing social issues in a way he hasn't to this point in the campaign as he fends off threats from two challengers. The Obama administration, he says, is waging "an assault on religion."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Catholic, says Democrats have "declared war on the Catholic Church."
Santorum's resurgence has coincided with the surge in controversy over social issues. During a two-day sprint through Oklahoma and Texas, he used the marriage and contraception rulings on the two coasts to raise broader concerns that the courts and the Obama administration are "trying to shutter faith" and "push it out of the public square."
"They are taking faith and crushing it," he told a Texas rally Monday. "When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what's left?"
It's powerful rhetoric, to be sure. But interviews Thursday with nearly two dozen attendees of the Conservative PAC convention in Washington produced remarkably similar sentiments: Even the most conservative voter cares most about the nation's fiscal health.
"I really think this election will turn on the economy," said Tina Katcheves, 38, a patent attorney from Howard County, Md.
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst, Charles Babington and Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
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