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Obama heading West to plug healthcare reform

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Reporting from Washington -- As debate over his healthcare overhaul heats up, President Obama is taking off for a family vacation this week that combines classic American sightseeing with the challenge of trying to sell his ideas to audiences out West.

He will be visiting Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon with his wife and daughters starting Friday, but the president also plans to hold town halls in Montana and Colorado to address problems facing the healthcare system and pitch Democratic plans to fix them.

His congressional allies have seen eruptions of anger during healthcare meetings around the country in recent days. But Obama's interactions with voters have been civil as he tries to provide a counterpoint to critics' complaints.

With polls showing Americans are split on the question of how the president is handling the healthcare issue, the White House strategy is to put its chief salesman on the road throughout the August congressional recess.

Obama will attend at least three question-and-answer sessions aimed at rebutting what he considers misunderstanding and misinformation.

The president is making his pitch even as a Gallup Poll released Wednesday showed that slightly more Americans disapproved of the president's handling of healthcare than approved, findings that essentially were unchanged over the last three weeks of an increasingly volatile debate.

Nearly half of those surveyed -- 49% -- said they disapproved of Obama's handling of healthcare policy, and 43% said they approved.

After weeks of action by committees in the House and an ongoing debate in a key Senate committee, supporters of a healthcare overhaul welcomed Obama's increased visibility.

"It's incredibly important to talk about this outside the Beltway echo chamber, removing the filters of talk radio and the blogosphere," said Jim Dau, an AARP spokesman. "Let's just get the facts. If you still disagree, that's fine, but make sure it's on the facts and not on the misinformation out there."

Critics have accused Obama and his allies of spreading their own misinformation.

AARP had to clarify its position this week after Obama's town hall in New Hampshire, where he suggested the senior citizens' group had endorsed healthcare legislation. AARP has not backed any of several bills being considered in Congress, although the group has specific provisions it wants to see included.

The president's critics also have said crowds at his town halls have not been representative.

Several meetings hosted by Democratic lawmakers have seen loud exchanges and shouting matches between constituents and their representatives. But at Obama's New Hampshire town hall, there were no contentious challenges.

"Apparently his was the only town hall in the entire country where there wasn't at least one voter opposed to a government takeover of healthcare," said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council.

Organizers of a demonstration in a conservative suburb of Bozeman, Mont., said Wednesday that they expected as many as 500 people to show up in protest of the president's plans.

An aide to Obama said the protests were "sideshows" that have been blown out of proportion by news coverage.

"I doubt we're seeing a representative sample of any series of town hall meetings," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, "despite the food fight on cable every day."

A second poll released late Wednesday suggested a partisan divide on the town hall demonstrations.

Overall, according to the Pew Research Center, a solid majority of Americans who have heard about the protests considered the conduct "appropriate," although Republicans were far more likely to say so than Democrats.

cparsons@latimes.com

mdsilva@latimes.com

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