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Health Care Debate Shifting Into Free Speech Battle

The tensions and passions flaring on both sides of the health care reform battle are starting to overshadow the substance of the debate itself. 

It's a tinderbox that threatens the health of the reform package being pushed by Democrats. 

Both sides of the aisle are playing hardball. Though Democrats first accused Republicans of leading "mob rule" at health care meetings, health care reform supporters are now responding in kind. 

The sides are engaging each other outside town hall meetings. Sensational footage of rowdy participants at a town hall forum in Tampa, Fla., drew heavy attention Friday. So did footage of a man, standing next to his son in a wheelchair, shouting at Rep. John Dingell in Michigan. 

According to one account from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, police arrested several people outside a meeting Thursday after they attacked a conservative activist. The White House even told Democratic senators Thursday they will "punch back twice as hard" if any of them are hit with attack ads, according to another report. 

Democrats may be trying to shed themselves of a reputation for fighting fire with kindness, but the heightened attention -- both in the media and in the strategies of public officials -- on the bare-knuckle blood sport of this policy debate holds big risks for the backers of the bill. 

"When there is fire in a room, you try to deprive it of oxygen," said Ron Bonjean, one-time aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. He said Democrats should be limiting the number of town hall meetings they're holding over recess, but instead they're taking the opposite approach, engaging the protesters and stirring the pot. 

They're fighting fire with political grease.

"All that does is generate more conflict and controversy around the plan and it just generates more media attention," Bonjean said, adding that the attention could make the health care plan "radioactive" to lawmakers once they return from break. 

The plan has passed three House committees and one Senate committee, but it has been held up in the Senate Finance Committee as a bipartisan group of six lawmakers tries to hammer out a compromise. They gave themselves a mid-September deadline to finish, making the time between now and then critical. A break in momentum could imperil their work, as well as the willingness of lawmakers in districts where these protests are flaring to support it on the floor. 

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, an ally of President Obama, urged organizers on both sides of the aisle to dial back the intensity. 

"Once again, the two edges are screaming and we need to focus on the middle," she told FOX News. "I hope everybody takes a deep breath, quits yelling. Both sides, let's talk. Let's discuss these proposals. Let's answer questions and be polite to one another and I think we can probably do some good." 

She said opponents of the bill started out with the loudest "edge," but now both sides are organizing, and sometimes disruptively. 

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Friday took a similar stance, noting that the administration has seen images that have "shocked and surprised us." He said that people who compare their opponents to Nazis -- a comparison that has been employed by both sides in this debate -- are on "thin ice." 

"I think the best thing to do is to take that temperature down," Gibbs said. "It's important that people be civil. We can discuss these issues without being uncivilized." 

It's unclear whether that can or will happen. 

According to a schedule obtained by FOX News, congressional Republicans have dozens of town halls scheduled for August. Democrats are also keeping a heavy schedule. 

Meanwhile, the president is essentially left to carry the message by himself in Washington for the rest of the month. 

Obama, touting news that the unemployment rate had dipped in July for the first time in more than a year, said Friday that health care reform is critical to lasting economic recovery. 

"Now is the time to build a new foundation for a stronger, more productive economy that creates the jobs of the future," he said. "We need health insurance reform that brings down costs, provides more security for folks who have insurance, and affordable options for those who don't."

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