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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As Romney and the Republicans try to unseat President Obama, let's consider an important highlight of the president's first four years - passage of a landmark health care law. That law is before the Supreme Court, which is hearing arguments on its legality next week.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on what's at stake for the president.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Most of President Obama's speeches these days focus on jobs or gas prices, but the health care law is his signature achievement - and at political events, like this fundraiser in New York City, it always gets a mention.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Change is health care reform that we passed after a century of trying.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

LIASSON: Now that the law is back in the spotlight, the White House is gearing up to defend it. Top administration officials are fanning out across the country to explain the law's benefits. Much of the focus is on women - key health care consumers and an all-important demographic for the president's re-election.

HARRIET SMITH: My name is Harriet Smith, I'm a fellow Pennsylvanian and I'm volunteering for President Obama.

LIASSON: Miss Smith hosted one of the hundreds of home-based phone banks organized by the Obama campaign this week. Volunteers called voters to remind them about the law.

SMITH: We find that a lot of people do not understand what it is. So we're going to try and explain that some people tonight.

LIASSON: Polls show voters equally divided about health care reform. But polls that refer to the Obama health care law get more negative results. Still, says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, one thing all the polls show is that intensity has remained with the law's opponents - twice as many people strongly oppose the law as strongly support it.

BILL MCINTURFF, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: Those dynamics have been consistent for the last couple of years. And going forward, though, that is a very different dialogue about how people feel about whether the bill should be repealed.

LIASSON: Repeal is the issue the Supreme Court is about to take up, and it's where the politics of health care get a lot more complicated. Ask the White House if it's making any contingency plans in case the court does strike all or part of the law and you hear this...

NANCY-ANN MIN DEPARLE: No, because we're confident that the law is constitutional and that we're going to be upheld by the Supreme Court.

LIASSON: That's White House Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy-Ann Min DeParle. Behind the scenes, however, White House officials are gaming out different scenarios, thinking about what to do and say if the court strikes down the whole law or just the individual mandate, which is its least popular and most important provision. There's no doubt that a ruling against the health care law, if it came in the midst of the campaign, would be seen initially as a huge victory for Republicans. As someone close to the president put it, anytime you have major blow and President Obama's name in the same sentence, it's not a good thing. Deputy Obama campaign manager Stephanie Cutter doesn't want to talk about what the court might do, but...

STEPHANIE CUTTER: I will say this about the individual mandate: it's about responsibility. It's about people taking responsibility for their own health care. If the individual responsibility provision under the president's health care reform law went away, then we would no longer be able to cover people with preexisting conditions. That ban on discriminating - insurance companies discriminating against people with preexisting conditions would have to go away.

LIASSON: And that ban is very popular. That's why, says McInturff, it's possible that even a negative Supreme Court decision might not hurt the president, at least not with the groups where insurance rates are lowest or costs highest - African-Americans, Hispanics, young voters and women.

BILL MCINTURFF: And so in a world where that coverage could be at risk, I think in a kind of unintended consequence sort of way, it could put the president in position of being back on the side of arguing for coverage on behalf of his core political constituency in a way that might animate them as we head into a campaign.

LIASSON: And it could have the opposite effect on the president's opponents, slaking some of their enthusiasm. And Democratic strategist Geoff Garin says if the mandate is overturned, it could make life more difficult for Republicans.

GEOFF GARIN: If we end up with a split decision where the court overturns the individual mandate but allows the rest of the law to stand, what do the Republicans say at that point? Let's get rid of all of the good things?

LIASSON: Good things like the popular provisions of the law that allow young people to stay on their parents' policies to age 26 or help seniors pay for prescription drugs. Republicans' battle cry on health care has been repeal and replace, but they've said very little about what they would put in its place if the law was repealed. The bottom line, says Bill McInturff, who's spent years polling on health care, is that voters don't always react the way they say they will.

MCINTURFF: There may be others who want to predict how folks are going to react based on what the Supreme Court does. Me in my pay grade, I would be enormously cautious.

LIASSON: And that's why the White House, the Obama campaign, the Republicans and the Supreme Court are all heading into uncharted political territory as the health care law comes up for review. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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