WASHINGTON — The debate over repealing the landmark health care overhaul offers Democrats something rare in politics: a do-over.
Democrats, who were widely perceived to have blown the political messaging over President Barack Obama's signature law, are revving up for a campaign-style offensive in an attempt to get it right the second time around.
When the House will vote on repeal is unclear. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Saturday that the House is postponing a vote, which had been scheduled for Wednesday, because of the shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz.
Ahead of the vote, Democrats had planned news conferences and rallies outside the district offices of nearly 70 Republican House members, many of whom were elected in districts Obama carried in his 2008 race.
The White House had set up a rapid-response operation and was deploying Cabinet secretaries to make the Democrats' case in newspaper editorials, on the radio and in satellite interviews with local television networks.
Party officials said they also had planned to showcase regular folks who have benefited from the health care law — such as those younger than 26 who are now able to stay on their parents' insurance plans and people with pre-existing conditions who can now get coverage — in local and national media to "put a face" on popular provisions.
"It's not often you get a second chance to make a first impression, but Republicans are giving that right to us," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "Right now, people don't realize all the good things in the bill. The more we have an opportunity to talk about them, fewer and fewer people are going to be for repeal."
As the bill was being crafted in 2009 and 2010, conservative opponents seemed to gain the upper hand with their political message. Activists dressed down Democratic lawmakers at their town hall meetings. They staged hands-off-my-health-care rallies. They dubbed the overhaul "Obamacare."
Opposition to the bill helped propel Republicans to take over the House and their effort to repeal it will fulfill a campaign promise and a tea party priority. In the likely event the effort fails to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate, House Republican leaders say they will keep whacking at the law piece by piece until it crumbles.
"We're listening to the American people," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Thursday. "They want this bill repealed, and we are going to repeal it. And we're going to do everything we can over the course of however long it takes to stop this because it will ruin the best health care system in the world, it will bankrupt our nation and it will ruin our economy."
Republican strategists say convincing a majority of Americans that they are better off with the new health care law than without it will be a high hill for Democrats to climb.
"The fundamental problem for the Democrats is that the bill as a whole is widely perceived to raise health care costs, raise health insurance premiums, increase taxes, increase the deficit and hurt the quality of care," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said.
Public opinion on the law has long been divided. A December poll by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that 42 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of it and 41 percent an unfavorable one. One in four respondents want to repeal the law in its entirety, while another one in four want to repeal parts of the law and keep other parts. The remainder want to leave the law as is or expand it.
Public polling has shown that certain provisions of the bill are more popular than others. Tax credits to small businesses, gradually closing the Medicare "doughnut hole" and prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions have had overwhelming support.
One of the most unpopular provisions, the requirement that individuals get health insurance or face penalties, is key to the entire overhaul. In a post-election Kaiser poll, nearly seven in 10 said they thought the individual mandate should be repealed.
But after losing their majority in the House and seeing it shrink in the Senate, Democrats believe they are risking little by fighting to protect a controversial law that is likely to help shape Obama's bid for re-election in 2012.
"The Republicans are making a big mistake," Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine said in an interview. "We're not going to let them do this quietly."
Kaine's spokesman was more direct: "They're totally walking into our talking points," Brad Woodhouse said. "It's a bring-it-on moment."
White House officials met last week with leaders of key constituency groups as well as Democratic governors, mayors and TV pundits to discuss talking points.
By coordinating surrogate media appearances, Democrats plan to force Republicans to "look Mary Sue in the eye and say, 'I'm sorry you weren't getting health care before because of a pre-existing condition, and you're getting it now, but I'm going to take it away from you because I'm so ideologically opposed to this president,' " Woodhouse said.
Their efforts may be futile in the House, as the repeal measure is likely to sail through because Republicans now enjoy a 242-to-193 majority.