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President Obama's supporters hope to recapture the energy of last year's triumphant election campaign in a bid to regain control of the health-care debate, planning more than 2,000 house parties, rallies and town hall meetings across the country over the next two weeks.
The initiative began Wednesday with a rally at a labor hall in Phoenix that featured the Obama sunrise logo and placards that became fixtures of the 2008 presidential campaign.
Organizing for America, a nationwide group of Obama supporters run by the Democratic National Committee, also brought along a colorful bus featuring the slogan, "Health Insurance Reform Now: Let's Get it Done." The vehicle is on an 11-city tour advocating for health-care reform.
"We think that change happens with neighbors talking to neighbors, and these rallies reflect that," said DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan. "That's how we won the campaign in the fall, with grass-roots organizing, and that's what we will see in these events going forward."
But the effort also underscores the unexpected difficulties faced by Obama and his allies in trying to push a health reform plan through Congress in the face of concerted Republican opposition and growing voter unease. Conservative activists have dominated the public debate in recent weeks with dire warnings and noisy disruptions at town hall meetings, while national polls show declining support for Obama's ambitious plan to widen health insurance coverage.
The DNC kickoff rally in Phoenix attracted about 1,200 reform supporters, but a raucous meeting on the other side of town hosted by Obama's former presidential campaign rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) attracted hundreds more -- most of whom were loudly opposed to Democratic reform proposals.
"The grass-roots anger over the spending and the size of the health-care grab by Obama is real, and all these staged rallies are not going to change that," said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a conservative Washington-based group that is rallying opposition to Obama's reform plans. "I think it's an acknowledgment that they're in trouble."
Katie Wright, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said that "no amount of rallies can hide the fact that the Democrats' government-run plan will raise costs, increase the deficit and put bureaucrats in charge of making personal health-care decisions."
Democrats and health reform advocates say the GOP contentions are false, and they hope to catch lawmakers' attention before they return to Washington after Labor Day. The House and Senate will resume wrangling over five competing health reform bills under consideration in Congress, all but one of which include a proposed public insurance option to compete with private insurers. The estimated cost of overall reform has hovered around $1 trillion over 10 years, though Obama has pledged to make the plan "budget neutral" through a combination of cuts and new revenue.
In many districts, the August recess has been defined by crowds of conservative opponents who have mounted protests and flocked to town hall meetings to confront Democratic lawmakers. The debate has been further clouded by allegations that Obama aims to bar Republicans from having health insurance or wants to form "death panels" to determine who receives medical treatment. No such policies are proposed.
"There were a lot of successful town halls and meetings over the recess, but the ones that got the most attention were those where angry people got up and yelled," said Jacki Schechner, spokeswoman for Health Care for America Now, a liberal coalition helping to organize many of the events. "We want to make sure the message that they take back to Washington is that the majority of the public stands behind the need for reform and that they need to get it done now."
The events range from modest gatherings that the Obama team refers to as house parties to rallies featuring the health reform bus, which as of Sunday had stopped in Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver, Des Moines and St. Louis. Still to come are Milwaukee; Indianapolis; Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh; and Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C.
The DNC is not the first group to use an eye-catching bus in the health-care debate, however. Patients First, an arm of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, ended a six-week tour on Friday that featured a bus wrapped in a giant red hand and the proclamation: "Hands Off Our Health Care!"
Group spokeswoman Amy Menefee said that although "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," she doubts the DNC-backed efforts will have much impact on the debate. She and other reform opponents also say the push seems phony.
"It's hard to calculate what the response will be when you're asking people to rally for bigger government," Menefee said of the Obama group's efforts. "That's essentially what they're asking of people, and I think on a personal, motivational level it's very different than the people on our side."