WASHINGTON -- Top Republicans are increasingly worried that GOP candidates this fall might be burned by a fire that's roaring through the conservative base: demand for the repeal of President Barack Obama's new health care law.
It's fine to criticize the health law and the way Democrats pushed it through Congress without a single GOP vote, these party leaders say. But focusing on its outright repeal carries two big risks.
Repeal is politically and legally unlikely, and grass-roots activists may feel disillusioned by a failed crusade. More important, say strategists from both parties, a fiercely repeal-the-bill stance might prove far less popular in a general election than in a conservative-dominated GOP primary, especially in states such as Illinois and California.
Democrats are counting on that scenario. They say more Americans will learn of the new law's benefits over time and anger over its messy legislative pedigree will fade. For months, Democrats have eagerly catalogued Republican congressional candidates who pledge to repeal the health care law, vowing to make them pay in November.
Republican leaders are stepping cautiously, wary of angering staunchly conservative voters bent on repealing the new law. In recent public comments, they have quietly played down the notion of repealing the law while emphasizing claims that it will hurt jobs, the economy and the deficit.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who chairs the committee responsible for electing GOP senators this fall, said in an interview, "The focus really should be on the misplaced priorities of the administration" and Congress' Democratic leaders.
"The No. 1 concern of the public is jobs and people losing their homes," he said. "The administration has been obsessing on this health care bill."
Asked if he advises Republican Senate candidates to call for repealing the law, Cornyn said: "Candidates are going to test the winds in their own states. ... In some places, the health care bill is more popular than others."
On Tuesday, Cornyn issued a 1,280-word campaign memo that mentioned "repeal" only once. It did not advocate repeal but noted that in a recent poll, "46 percent of respondents support a full repeal" of the health law.
Three weeks ago, Cornyn told reporters he thought GOP Senate candidates would and should run on a platform of repealing the legislation.
Cornyn and others increasingly are focused on several corporations' claims that a provision of the new law that cancels a tax benefit will hurt profits and hiring. This approach places a greater premium on pivoting to the economy instead of dwelling on the legalistic process of trying to repeal the complex law.
"The health care debate provides a natural segue into talking about the economy and jobs," said Nicklaus Simpson, spokesman for the Senate Republican Conference, a policy group.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which strongly opposed the health bill's passage, said Tuesday, "While some discuss repeal, the U.S. Chamber believes a more effective approach is to work through all available and appropriate avenues -- regulatory, legislative, legal and political -- to fix the bill's flaws and minimize its harmful impacts."
Obama said last week he would relish a Republican bid to repeal the new law.
"My attitude is, go for it," Obama said in Iowa on Friday. "If these congressmen in Washington want to come here in Iowa and tell small-business owners that they plan to take away their tax credits and essentially raise their taxes, be my guest."
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an interview that his team began months ago pressing Republican candidates to state whether they support repeal of the health care legislation. Most of them have, and Democrats predict such support will prove unpopular this fall.
"We believe the issue of repeal is one that puts the Republicans in a pretty sticky place," Menendez said. "You never want to wage a campaign telling voters you want to take something away from them."
In Illinois, where there's a spirited battle to fill the Senate seat Obama once held, Democrats seem to have hit a nerve by attacking Republican nominee Mark Kirk's pledge to try to repeal the health law. Two weeks ago, Kirk said he would "lead the effort" to repeal the measure.
On Tuesday, when asked repeatedly by reporters whether he still wants it repealed, Kirk would say only that he opposes the new taxes and Medicare cuts associated with the law.
Republican strategist Kevin Madden said the repeal message is "a call to action" that excites many conservative voters, who will be important in November. But the risk of talking only about repeal, he said, "is you only define your position by what you're against."
Madden said GOP candidates should advocate "repeal and reform," which will let them discuss alternative ways to control health care expenses, quality and access. Because an actual repeal is unlikely, he said, candidates should not get bogged down in the mechanics of how it might work, and focus instead on issues such as costs.
"The legislative track is largely finished," Madden said.
Menendez said Democrats in many states will ask their GOP opponents why they want to restore insurance companies' ability to deny coverage to people with medical problems and to young adults who otherwise can stay on their parents' health plans until age 26.
Candidates seeking the GOP nominations in many states, Menendez said, "are facing tremendous pressure from the tea party, from the party base" to embrace a position that could hurt them when more independent and moderate voters go to the polls in the general election.
But several conservative groups are adamant about trying to repeal the new law, and they have attacked GOP candidates who refuse to join them. The Club for Growth launched a "Repeal It" campaign in January, and is urging supporters to back only those candidates who make the pledge.
Many Republicans facing competitive Senate primaries have signed up, even if they might confront a far more moderate electorate in the general election.
"I've taken the pledge to repeal the law and replace it with true reform that will increase quality and lower costs," said Carly Fiorina, vying for the GOP nomination to challenge Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in California.