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Romney-Santorum Scuffle on Contraception Aids Democrats

Republican Process Benefits Democrats, Again

“[Rick Santorum has] brought contraception into this campaign – the issue of birth control, contraception. Blunt-Rubio is being debated, I believe, later this week. It deals with banning or allowing employers to ban providing female contraception. He’s said that he’s for that – we’ll talk about personhood here in a second – but he’s for that. Have you taken a position on it?”

-- Question to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney from reporter Jim Heath of the Ohio News Network.

Asked by an Ohio reporter about legislation that would “ban providing female contraception,” Mitt Romney was eager to move on from the topic, saying, “I'm not for the bill. But, look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, I'm not going there."

Romney then offered up another backhand for ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, who first brought the issue into the campaign, pressing the Republican candidates on their contraception views at length during a Jan. 7 debate. That was two weeks before the Obama administration issued its controversial rule requiring religious institutions to offer health insurance policies that include birth control, even if it violates their beliefs.

Santorum’s supporters and campaign seized on the response as evidence that Romney has been insincere in his repeated, strenuous objections to the president’s rule and to point out what they say is evidence of Romney’s own religious intolerance in Massachusetts by allowing government funds to flow to Planned Parenthood, etc.

Romney never misses a chance to praise Marco Rubio and has often cited the support of Roy Blunt, who endorsed Romney five months ago. Romney might have been eager to flee the topic, but should have been tipped off when he heard the names of two of his favorite senators attached to anything, even though the reporter described it inaccurately.

The Romney campaign quickly clarified that he supported the amendment and put the candidate on the air with hometown talk radio host Howie Carr to express his support for the measure, saying that he thought the reporter was talking about some unfamiliar piece of state legislation. But a tactical error by Romney in ducking a question wasted several hours of the news cycle in the day after two big wins for his campaign.

Democrats and establishment press outlets were delighted. The key headline words for Wednesday night and Thursday morning: Flip-flop, backtrack, reversal, gaffe, etc.

The story is hardly a clear win for Santorum, who is trying to move his campaign away from a focus on social issues and to woo women voters in Ohio with a pitch aimed at working moms and economically struggling families.

But it’s an open primary and Santorum will again be hoping to bring socially conservative Democrats, in great supply in the Buckeye State, into the Republican primary. Unwilling to let Romney’s social issue stumble go unpunished, the Santoristas dove back in to the topic of birth control. Rather than Ohio voters hearing about economic proposals, they’re hearing today, again, about The Pill.

Like Newt Gingrich’s former attacks on Romney’s years at Bain Capital, the contraceptive attack is a hard one to resist because it gets a multiplier effect from establishment press outlets and Democrats. It’s difficult to get establishment reporters to talk about tax policy, but no trouble to get wall-to-wall coverage about Republicans who want to limit access to contraceptives or a Romney flip-flop story.

But whatever this tempest in a TweetDeck does for the chances of Romney and Santorum in Ohio, the clear beneficiaries are the Obama Democrats.

The Blunt-Rubio amendment is up for a vote today and already enjoys the support of some Democrats and will be a brutal choice for many other Democrats from pro-life states. How many Democrats will end up siding with Blunt and Rubio against the president’s controversial rule is unclear, but it will be a moment when divisions within the incumbent’s party are revealed.

The Romney mistake will soon enough fade as the Republican frontrunner reiterates his support for the measure, but for today, what was going to be a clean hit by the GOP on one of Obama’s most significant political mistakes – picking a fight with Catholic bishops, rather than seeking an accommodation – will be muddied by the fight on the right.

The amendment is narrowly cast to provide only conscience objections for religious organizations and will be hard for lots of swing state Democrats to oppose, especially since many states already have similar rules.

The amendment, though, may still not get the 50 votes needed to advance, especially given the chance of the defection of the Republicans from Maine and Massachusetts. There may be some new, narrower version that emerges later that can win more Democrats who are concerned about the Obama rule, but this could be the only chance for Republicans to press their advantage on this issue.

While it will still damage Obama’s chances and those of key GOP targets in the Senate, like Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, the storyline is significantly muddled. Had Romney made the same mistake in a general election interview Republicans would have quickly closed ranks behind him and squelched the story rather than encouraged it.

As the Republicans fight over contraception in Ohio, Obama will campaigning in another swing state, New Hampshire, talking about high gas prices. The president’s pitch is that oil companies should be paying more taxes in order to finance green energy initiatives. It’s not something that would play well in many states, but could get a good hearing in the only New England swing state. Obama also campaigned on his oil tax idea in environmentally conscious Florida.

The Republicans won’t be able to make him pay the price for that policy elsewhere as they tussle over five seconds of an interview on a local cable news channel.

Republicans can’t blame Santorum, a fierce competitor, for trying to win. When the climb is steep and the odds are long, it is hard to let any opportunity pass. And they can’t be too frustrated with Romney for a botched dodge. On the scale of gaffes, especially for Romney, “Blunt-Rubio” is a trifle.

But one understands why many Republicans have grown weary of the process itself.


And Now, A Word From Charles

“[The deal with North Korea] is a fool's deal on two counts. Number one, we know they are going to cheat. Every time we had an agreement with them going back to the Clinton agreement called the framework agreement, we provide real stuff, here a quarter of a million tons of badly needed food which the regime needs in order that it survive. We give them real stuff and they give false promises over two decades. They set up violations in advance. They have actually said today that they will only carry out the agreement as long as talks proceed fruitfully. So that means at any time they can stand up and walk out and say we're obstructing and break all agreements.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier”


Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he serves as the host of "Power Play" on FoxNews.com and makes daily appearances on the network including "America Live with Megyn Kelly," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace." Most recently, Stirewalt provided expert political analysis during the 2012 presidential election.