Birth control and religious freedom have suddenly become the dominant issue in the presidential race, an explosive issue with possible risks and benefits to both President Barack Obama and his leading challenger, Mitt Romney.
The controversy over Obama's health care reform plan, which requires employee insurance policies to cover prescription contraceptives, has switched the focus of the nation's long-simmering dispute over reproductive rights from abortion to birth control.
For Democrats, who are now using the dispute over birth control coverage in their fundraising, that could be helpful.
"If the Republican candidates come off as anti-birth control, they will appear out of touch with the vast majority of Americans," said Orlando-based Democratic political pollster Jim Kitchens.
"It's a much better argument (than abortion) for Democrats to have. If the election is a referendum on whether American women should have access to birth control, that's good."
On the other hand, said another Democratic pollster, David Beattie, an argument about religious rights could energize the Republican base, which hasn't been excited so far about its choices in the presidential race.
"It's distracting from the debate about what kind of economy we want to have," an argument Beattie thinks Democrats are winning. "If it's an argument about separation between church and state, Republicans win," he said.
That's what Republicans are trying to make it, accusing Obama of what they call a "war on religion" or on the Catholic Church.
At issue is a requirement in the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law, saying employer-provided group health insurance must cover preventive health services, including prescription contraception.
Churches themselves are exempted, but not church-affiliated organizations such as hospitals and colleges with secular purposes that hire members of other religions.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has used the issue to raise his already high national profile, sponsoring legislation to eliminate the coverage requirement.
The Democratic Party, in a fundraising letter for Senate candidates citing the controversy, says, "Our right-wing opponents continue to launch attack after attack against women's rights, women's health, and women's economic security." And adds, "It's hard to believe that in the 21st century we have to fight for access to birth control, but that is the fact."
* * * * *For Mitt Romney, front-runner in the GOP presidential primary, the issue could be complex.
As Romney accuses Obama of violating religious freedom, the Obama campaign responds that Massachusetts, where Romney enacted a major health care reform, has the same coverage requirements.
Also, 28 states have some form of contraception coverage mandates, with or without exemptions for religious institutions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonpartisan think tank on reproductive issues.
Romney says he wasn't responsible for the Massachusetts law, which passed before he took office.
But primary opponents Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum both have attacked him over a law requiring all Massachusetts hospitals, including Catholic institutions, to provide day-after contraception, what Gingrich called "abortion pills," to rape victims.
Romney responds that the law passed over his veto, but the two opponents have stuck to their criticism. Their rationale: Romney chose to enforce the law, reversing a decision of the state Department of Public Health, which said other laws provided an exemption, according to factcheck.org, the political fact-checking service of the Annenberg Foundation.
The complexities of the issue haven't dampened Romney's rhetoric.
In a recent opinion piece, Romney said the rule "tramples on religious freedom, taking particular aim at Roman Catholics," and "is forcing religious institutions to choose between violating their conscience or dropping health care coverage for their employees."
The Obama campaign responded: "The facts tell a different story. … Mitt Romney is attacking the President for providing women with the same access to contraception and preventive health care services Romney did as governor."
It said the Massachusetts law contains the same exemption for churches but not for church-affiliated organizations with nonreligious purposes.
The controversy between Planned Parenthood and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure anti-breast cancer advocacy group has elevated the issue nationally.
For some time, Planned Parenthood has been the target of congressional Republicans who oppose federal funding for the organization because the services it provides women include abortions.
But since the controversy over the coverage requirements of the health care reform law, the organization has gone on a publicity offensive.
This week, it released data from one poll it sponsored and another by an independent group showing majorities of voters, including majorities of Catholic voters, favor providing contraception coverage and don't think church-affiliated organizations, only churches themselves, should be exempted.
Polls have shown that U.S. Catholic women use birth control despite the church's prohibition.
A 2011 Guttmacher survey said among women who have had sex, 99 percent have used artificial contraception, including 98 percent of Catholics, and 68 percent of sexually active Catholic women who want to avoid pregnancy use the pill, some other hormonal contraceptive or an IUD.
Asked about the polling results, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant responded: "We aren't interested in the polling on the issue. The senator introduced his legislation because defending religious freedoms is the right thing to do."
* * * * *Catholic bishops across the nation, including Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, issued pastoral letters opposing the contraception coverage requirement.
Lynch denied he was getting involved in politics but attacked Obama for "willingly and willfully precipitating a constitutional crisis by causing this assault on the freedom of religion."
A Lynch spokesman said the letter focused on Obama rather than on Romney or leaders in other states with coverage requirements because Lynch "doesn't have working knowledge of requirements of other states," and that the federal requirement "seems to breach the religious freedom and freedom of conscience to a degree that hasn't been done before."