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Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has joined the chorus of voices criticizing President Obama over a controversial policy on birth control. The policy would require most employers, including Catholic hospitals and universities, to include birth control in their employees' health insurance.

Catholic leaders have denounced the policy as an assault on religious freedom. But NPR's Scott Horsley reports on new polling that suggests most voters, including Catholics, support the measure.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Ever since priests took to their pulpits nine days ago to attack the new birth control mandate, the White House has been feeling heat from all sides. On the Republican campaign trail this week, Mitt Romney gleefully picked up the refrain that the administration is trying to dictate to religious institutions.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: We must have a president who is willing to protect America's first right - our right to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

HORSLEY: The administration insists it's sensitive to religious liberty, and churches themselves are exempt from the requirement. But spokesman Jay Carney says the White House is also trying to protect another interest: women's access to affordable birth control, even if those women happen to work at a Catholic hospital or university.

JAY CARNEY: We believe that these services are important, and that American women deserve to have access to that kind of insurance coverage regardless of where they work.

HORSLEY: A survey released today by Public Policy Polling suggests most voters agree, including 53 percent of Catholic voters and 63 percent of women. Tom Jensen directed the survey.

TOM JENSEN: These are, obviously, groups that are going to be really key for the election this fall - swing voter groups. They're all quite supportive of the birth control benefit.

HORSLEY: So why is the administration catching so much flak? Political scientist John Green, of the University of Akron, suspects church leaders will win this argument if they succeed in framing the issue as one of religious autonomy rather than women's access.

JOHN GREEN: A lot of people who would be perfectly content to have these kinds of services in their personal health-care package might be concerned about the impact on the institutional church.

HORSLEY: So supporters of the new policy are belatedly trying to refocus attention in a more popular direction - away from religious freedom, and towards women's health care. Lanae Erickson, of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, says that argument is especially persuasive with the independent voters who helped elect Mr. Obama three years ago.

LANAE ERICKSON: Obama independents were much more secular than independents generally, and much more secular than Americans generally. They were more female, and they were much more moderate.

HORSLEY: That's not to say the new policy hasn't alienated some of Mr. Obama's ardent Catholic supporters. But most white Catholics who attend Mass weekly didn't vote for him last time, anyway. While the president and his allies prefer to talk about birth control than religious liberty, Mitt Romney is just the opposite. When birth control came up during an ABC debate last month, Romney quickly tried to change the subject.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: Contraception, it's working just fine. Just leave it alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HORSLEY: In fact, Romney, along with House Republicans, wants to eliminate government funding for birth control. Pollster Jensen says that puts the GOP front-runner out of step with most Americans.

JENSEN: He's sort of playing with fire here. This is definitely an issue that has the potential to be pretty resonant this fall, and it's one where congressional Republicans and Mitt Romney really may pay a price at the polls if they try to take this benefit away.

HORSLEY: Religious institutions, meanwhile, have another year and a half before the birth control mandate takes effect. White House spokesman Carney signals there's still time for a compromise.

CARNEY: There are ways to resolve this issue that - ensures that we provide that important preventive service to all women and that tries – in a way that also tries to allay some of these concerns.

HORSLEY: But crafting a policy to satisfy diverse constituencies, and congregations, no longer seems a top priority. Both sides are increasingly preaching to their own choirs.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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