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As the president shifts topics, the GOP is still focused on Obamacare

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WASHINGTON — In his State of the Union address, President Obama will touch on his healthcare law but keep the focus instead on his agenda to tackle income inequality: a push to increase the minimum wage, extend unemployment benefits and boost access to pre-kindergarten education.

That was not the case across town Tuesday at the Republican National Committee, where the pre-buttal to the speech was all Obamacare, all the time. Though the administration has made progress by enrolling some 3 million people through the marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act, Republicans show no signs of backing off their opposition as they hammer Democratic lawmakers over the problems created by the law.

At RNC headquarters, Republican leaders handed the microphone to 10 constituents from eight states who were asked to share the problems they have faced — from premium increases to canceled plans — as a result of the healthcare law.

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Not surprisingly, a number of the guests were from states where Democrats are facing tough reelection contests, and even from some blue states where Republicans suddenly see opportunities for upsets.

"Most people feel betrayed; they feel betrayed by a lie that the president made to the American people," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, referring to Obama’s statements that if people liked their healthcare plans they could keep them under the new law. As a result, Priebus argued, in addition to aiding Republicans in red states, "you’re seeing the unpopularity of Obamacare and the president himself put other states in play."

"That’s going to cause an avalanche across the country," Priebus said. "If anything what you’re going to have is Democrats spending a whole lot of money in states that they never expected to spend money in."

As Republicans make their 2014 case in swing states, they have been using the stories of people like Aaron Hirsch, a self-employed IT contractor from Louisiana who said his family’s policy was canceled because it did not meet the minimum requirements of the Affordable Care Act. The replacement policy, Hirsch said during the RNC news conference, "is going to cost me 80% more in premiums, which works out to about $5,500 dollars more a year in premiums that I will have to pay for services that I don’t really need."

Another featured speaker was Julie Boonstra of Michigan — a state where Republicans have struggled to make inroads in recent Senate and presidential contests — who shared her story about being diagnosed with leukemia five years ago and then receiving a notice in October that her plan was being dissolved. After struggling with HealthCare.gov, she signed up for a private plan.

"Life has been hard fighting leukemia, but my insurance needs were met" under the old plan, she said. With the new plan, "I can at least get my chemotherapy, but of course I’m paying a higher price now as far as out-of-pocket costs, and the coverage just is not the same."

(Defenders of the law have said that on the whole, Obamacare prevents policies that endangered patients with coverage gaps, and that the new coverage routinely has lower out-of-pocket costs than the older plans it replaces.)

The law remains unpopular in a number of states that will be crucial to Democratic hopes of maintaining control of the Senate — one reason why Obama is likely to brush over it during his Tuesday night address. The president's approval ratings took a hit in the midst of the troubled rollout of HealthCare.gov, and a new Gallup poll shows that those problems have persisted in states that will hold highly competitive Senate contests this year, including Louisiana, North Carolina, Arkansas, Alaska and Montana.   

In Louisiana, where Sen. Mary L. Landrieu is facing a difficult three-way race against Rep. Bill Cassidy, a physician, and tea party candidate Rob Maness largely because of the unpopularity of the law, just 40% polled by Gallup gave the president a positive rating. Obama’s positive rating was 43% in North Carolina, a state where he narrowly lost in 2012 and where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan recently skipped a presidential visit, citing her work in the Senate.

White House advisors and Democratic allies insist that the overall picture is improving and that more and more Americans are seeing the benefits of the law, but Republicans are relishing the chance to keep the debate alive through 2014.

"I hope [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman] Steve Israel and the Democrats run on Obamacare," National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden said Tuesday at the RNC. "Our polling shows if they do, they will have the smallest majority since before World War II, because in the targeted seats we’re looking at, Obamacare’s damage is like a hurricane going through."

maeve.reston@latimes.com

Twitter: @MaeveReston

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