WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama may have won the day when the US Supreme Court upheld his health care reforms, but Republicans are casting the ruling as a defining event that could propel their man Mitt Romney into the White House.
While it may have secured the president's place in history Thursday by validating his greatest domestic achievement, the court handed Romney some gifts as well, and he and his Republicans are already capitalizing.
It instantly galvanized conservatives in anger; energized Romney's most consistent attacks against Obama, that the law now must be repealed through Congress; and handed the presumptive Republican nominee a fresh campaign theme: the most controversial part of the law is actually a tax on Americans.
"Perhaps the Supreme Court ruling is a blessing in disguise," said Lloyd Marcus, a blogger for Tea Party Express, an influential group in the conservative tea party movement that advocates smaller government and reduced taxes.
"I believe the Supreme Court ruling in favor of 'Obamacare' will unify a majority of Americans to crawl over broken glass and walk across burning hot coals to vote for Mitt Romney."
Republican leaders are banking on that kind of enthusiasm down the stretch, as Romney finds himself locked in a tight race with an incumbent who, a recent poll shows, has taken the lead in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- the three largest battleground states of the 2012 election.
"It's fired people up," Republican strategist Brad Marston, co-founder of FourTier Strategies, told AFP of the court verdict.
"If the law was declared unconstitutional it would have been the end, because that ruling suddenly would have been a rallying point for Democrats," he added. "Instead, it pretty much guarantees a united Republican base."
Republican congressman Phil Gingrey took it one giant step further, telling CNN on Thursday that "this is going to elect Mitt Romney the 45th president of the United States."
The Romney team is hardly cheering, given that the court nullified his position that the law was unconstitutional, but they sound almost giddy over the decision's prospective impact on the campaign.
"We have received a tremendous response following the SCOTUS ruling," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul wrote in an email.
In the 24 hours since the decision, the Romney campaign raised $4.6 million, and has been hammering home the message put out by Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, that the ruling "sets the stakes for the November election."
The White House has not said how much money the Obama campaign has raked in since the ruling, but Democrats were also quick to paint the court's decision onto the campaign canvas.
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina sought to whip up fervent support in a fundraising email, saying the only way to ensure continuation of the Affordable Care Act was to "win the damn election."
As the campaign battle lines harden, with Romney drilling into Obama's handling of the economy, a new front opened up: taxes.
The Supreme Court upheld the health care law in part by asserting the legality of the individual mandate under Congress's taxing powers.
Obama and his surrogates had long insisted that the provision that required people to purchase or acquire health care or pay a fine was not a tax but a penalty.
"The court blew the president's cover," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday.
Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh was more blunt, describing the controversial mandate as "the biggest tax increase in the history of the world."
That won't be such a tenable argument for Romney to make.
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney presided over health care reform which also included an individual mandate, and which the White House has happily explained served as the basis for Obama's plan.
A senior Obama administration official said Romney was in the difficult spot of arguing against a principle, now backed by the Supreme Court, that he initiated himself.
Despite the flood of campaign rhetoric over the ruling, it may only serve as a "short-term boost to the wings of both parties," according to Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
He said he did not envision Romney abandoning his focus on the country's number one challenge: jobs.
Republicans have argued Obama does not deserve a second term because he has been unable to speed up the sluggish economic recovery, and the jobless rate has remained above 8.0 percent since he took office in 2009.
"The economy still rules this election, and that's a drag on this president," Scala said.
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