WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama once told Democratic lawmakers they'd be proud to campaign on historic health care legislation. Six months later, the only Democrats running ads about it are the ones who voted "no."
Now, with crucial elections approaching to decide control of Congress, the White House is preparing to use the law's six-month anniversary to reintroduce it to skeptical voters and trumpet new reforms that are taking effect, such as new coverage for preventive care and young adults and a ban on canceling insurance for someone who falls ill.
Democrats are packaging the provisions, which kick in Thursday, as a "Patient's Bill of Rights," and Obama is advertising them Wednesday at an event in Virginia with beneficiaries.
Even supporters acknowledge there's probably not enough time to turn around public opinion on the health care issue before November elections that are expected to punish Democrats. But in a campaign season dominated by jobs and the economy, Democrats hope to remind voters of some tangible benefits the health care overhaul will bring and move to undercut Republican arguments against it.
"When people better understand the Affordable Care Act, they'll understand, I think, that this isn't something being done to them but is something that's really going to be valuable to them," Obama told community and religious leaders on a conference call Tuesday in which he urged them to spread the word. "The debate in Washington is over. The Affordable Care Act is now law."
The debate on the campaign trail, however, is just heating up. With every House seat and a third of the Senate up for re-election six weeks from now, there are plenty of candidates who are being called to account for their vote in March on the health care legislation. And in almost every case the ones on the defensive are Democrats who supported the bill that the Republicans branded as a budget-busting government takeover, not Republicans who opposed it.
In Ohio, Republican hopeful Jim Renacci takes aim at freshman Democrat Rep. John Boccieri, among the Democrats elected in Republican-friendly districts that are now being targeted. "Boccieri voted for Obama's health care bill, packed full of job-killing taxes," a Renacci ad says in an accusation echoed in Republican campaigns across the country.
Boccieri's ads don't mention his health care vote; none of the 219 House Democrats who support the legislation are talking about it in campaign ads. But several of the 34 Democrats who voted "no" can now boast of that vote, casting it as a sign of their fiscal responsibility or independence from Obama and party leaders.
In Virginia, an ad for Democratic Rep. Glenn Nye has him "voting against the health care bill, because it cost too much."
"The health care bill is playing a significant role in a number of campaigns across the country," said Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "The legislation has alienated key demographic groups like seniors and independent voters."
Democrats and the White House play down the significance of the health bill as a campaign issue.
"Health care will play a role in individual campaigns, but this is not an election about health care," Dan Pfeiffer, White House communications director, said in an interview. "This is an election about jobs and the economy."
A new AP poll finds just 30 percent of people in favor of and 40 percent opposed to the 10-year, nearly $1 trillion bill to extend health coverage to 32 million uninsured. Another 30 percent were neither in favor nor opposed. But Democrats contend that the numbers have shown gradual improvement and that the Republican message of repeal is losing steam. And they argue that candidates can see political benefit if they focus on individual provisions of the bill that are popular.
"We need to continue to focus on the strong elements of the bill," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It's very clear it's taken some time to focus on the consumer rights and patient protections."
Among benefits taking effect this week:
--Young adults can remain on their family's health plan until they turn 26.
--Free immunizations for children.
--Free preventive care, like mammograms and cholesterol screenings.
--No more lifetime coverage limits, and annual limits start to phase out.
--Plans can't cancel coverage for people who get sick.
--No denial of coverage to children with pre-existing health conditions.
Most of the big changes, such as the new purchasing pools and requirement for everyone to carry insurance, don't kick in until 2014, but Democrats hope that the more voters learn of the benefits, the more they'll like the bill.
Ultimately, Democrats argue, health care will be a political winner.
Just maybe not this year.
"I think most of my colleagues on our side of the aisle, whether they voice it publicly or not, certainly see the health care vote as a historic vote and something that will be seen in the future as a courageous and correct vote," said Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia. "That doesn't mean it will be rewarded in this cycle. And that's the pain of this situation."