WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's political shifting over contraception coverage has united conservative Republicans in protest even as they split over which GOP presidential hopeful should face him in the general election.
The candidates themselves, campaigning for votes in the Conservative Political Action Conference's straw poll Saturday, competed to present themselves as most opposed to Obama's health care law.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the straw poll Saturday, followed by former Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who did not attend the annual conference of conservative activists.
On Friday, after three weeks of controversy that pitted the nation's Catholic bishops against the White House, Obama revised his policy. Instead of requiring employers to cover contraception, the policy would now require insurance companies to provide free birth control coverage in separate agreements with workers who want it.
"It's an accounting trick — the employer still plays the insurance," said Mike Gonzales of the Heritage Foundation. "Do (White House officials) think people are stupid?"
The controversy, several said, is a natural outgrowth of what they consider the overreach of Obama's health care mandate.
"My problem is the coercion" in the broader overhaul, said Washington real estate agent Bruce Majors.
Many shrugged off Obama's rewrite.
"It's not like they said, 'We were wrong," said Spencer Larson, an investment adviser from Moraga, Calif. "They said, 'We can't afford this politically.'"
"Nothing in health insurance is free," agreed Cherylyn Harley LeBon, a lawyer. "The cost is going to be passed on" to employees of religious organizations and everyone else, she said.
Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee, closed the three-day CPAC gathering Saturday with a conservative call to arms full of derision for Obama.
Palin did not endorse a presidential candidate. But she offered little comfort to Romney, who is imploring Republicans to rally around his candidacy so he can start focusing on Obama and November.
"I believe the competition has got to keep going," Palin said to loud applause. "Competition strengthens us," she said. "Competition will lead us to victory in 2012."
Palin decried "the Washington of the permanent class," where she said people arrive with good intentions and stay to enrich themselves and their cronies.
"It's time to drain the Jacuzzi," she said.
The whole debate over government health insurance has cost Obama plenty. His party lost the House majority in 2010 in part because of a backlash over the new law's demands on private industry and individuals.
The resentments erupted anew after the Obama administration on Jan. 20 announced that religious-affiliated employers, except houses of worship, had to cover birth control free of charge as preventive care for women. These hospitals, schools and charities were given until August 2013 to comply.
Under the revision, women will still get guaranteed access to birth control without co-pays or premiums no matter where they work, a provision of Obama's health care law that he insisted must remain. But religious universities and hospitals that see contraception as an unconscionable violation of their faith can refuse to cover it. Insurance companies will then have to step in to do so.
A Fox News poll released Friday showed a large majority, 61 percent, of Americans approve of requiring employer health plans to cover birth control for women. Thirty-four percent disapproved. The nationwide survey was conducted by telephone among 1,110 registered voters Feb. 6-9 and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points, the network said.
The furor was part of a recent resurgence of social issues, including gay marriage and the funding of Planned Parenthood, in the political discourse. For Obama, the uproar risked his clout with independents, women and Catholics in battleground states from Pennsylvania to across the Midwest.
Republicans, meanwhile, roiling over a presidential nominating contest that shows no sign of settling, pounced on the issue. From the House and Senate to the presidential campaign trail this week, they cast the contraception controversy as an assault on the freedom of religion. It was a battle cry the divided party could bellow in unison.
At the CPAC convention Friday in Washington, the political candidates made contrasting appeals to conservatives but vowed to repeal all or parts of what they call "Obamacare."
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who swept three nomination contests earlier in the week, said that with the health care law, Obama "is telling the Catholic Church that they are forced to pay for things that are against their basic tenants and teachings."
"It's not about contraception," said Santorum, a Catholic. "It's about economic liberty."
Romney, a Mormon who in the past supported abortion rights, vowed to reverse "every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life."
Romney won the CPAC straw poll with 38 percent of the 3,408 votes cast. Santorum drew 31 percent, and Gingrich was favored by 15 percent. All three candidates addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday.
Romney had encouraged college-age people to attend the convention, and 44 percent of those who voted were students.
Paul had 12 percent. He won the straw poll in the previous two years. Paul did not attend this year's conference to campaign in Maine.
Associated Press writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.