- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2012

Their fight with President Obama over contraceptive coverage is becoming a losing battle for Republicans, a significant chunk of whom reject GOP leaders’ stance that it’s a fight about religious liberty, according to the latest Washington Times/JZ Analytics poll.

While a majority of Republicans side with their party’s leaders, a striking 30 percent agree with Mr. Obama’s stance that his contraception mandate is about women’s health.

Regarding young voters, the poll has even worse news for the GOP.

“Drop this baby right now. Drop it. This is not a winner,” John Zogby, the pollster who conducted the survey, said by way of advising the GOP. “I don’t know if the White House was smart enough to box Republicans into a corner on this — I don’t know if it was by plan — but I think it worked out that way.”

Republican presidential candidates and leaders in Congress say Mr. Obama’s decision to require institutions with a religious affiliation to provide insurance that covers contraceptives is an infringement on First Amendment protections, but, after stumbling, Mr. Obama has fought back by saying he is defending women’s reproductive health.

Sensing the way the issue has played out, the presidential candidates have tried to move on.

Newt Gingrich has tried to focus instead on rising gas prices, and Mitt Romney, campaigning in Ohio on Monday, urged the field to shy away from social issues altogether.

“I look at this campaign right now and I see a lot of folks talking about lots of things, but what we need to talk about to defeat Barack Obama is getting good jobs and scaling back the size of government, and that’s what I do,” Mr. Romney said.

The numbers on contraceptives were just one of the signs of trouble for the candidates, who have staked out several positions that could damage them at the polls.

That was the case on immigration, where analysts say the GOP is shedding Hispanic support by taking a strict stance on the issue — but Republican primary voters said they don’t care.

By a margin of nearly 4-to-1, likely Republican primary voters said the GOP should stake out a tough stance, even if it will cost the party Hispanic support.

The candidates are abiding by that view. Mr. Romney, should he win the nomination, would be the strictest on illegal immigration of any major-party nominee in history, as would his closest competitor, Rick Santorum.

Overall, this year’s GOP’s presidential field is arguably the most conservative in history — as evidenced by the fact that Mr. Romney was considered the conservative alternative in 2008, but this year is derided as the liberal candidate of the bunch.

Still, in the Washington Times/JZ Analytics poll, a plurality of voters — 42 percent — describe themselves as more conservative than the field. Another 37 percent said they are about the same level as the candidates, while 15 percent, chiefly self-identified independents who vote in GOP primaries, said they are more liberal than the field.

The survey of 500 people who said they already have or are likely to vote in Republican primaries was taken Friday and Saturday. It has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

On the contraceptive issue, Republicans have been in retreat since last week, when radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh questioned the promiscuity of a Georgetown University Law School student who said her contraceptive coverage costs her $1,000 a year, which she must pay out of pocket.

Mr. Limbaugh apologized for his language over the weekend, even as several sponsors said they would no longer back his show.

Mr. Obama pursued the political advantage by making a phone call to the 30-year-old student, Sandra Fluke, late last week.

Liberal advocacy groups have called on the GOP presidential candidates to denounce Mr. Limbaugh, and one of them — the labor union-backed Americans United for Change — drew a connection between Bain Capital, the company Mr. Romney used to run, and Clear Channel’s Premiere Radio Networks Inc., which has Mr. Limbaugh under contract.

Women’s rights groups said Mr. Limbaugh’s comments signal a broader and deeper hostility toward women in U.S. political discourse.

“The attacks on Ms. Fluke’s character have revealed the deep-rooted hostility toward women that lies at the heart of the unprecedented wave of assaults on reproductive rights across the United States,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.