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Opinion

Opinion | Joan Vennochi

Warren risks morphing into the ‘woman’s candidate’

Elise Amendola/ Associated Press

TALKING ABOUT sex is so much better than talking about gas prices. Democrats are thrilled that birth control is a major issue not only in the presidential election, but in Senate contests across the country.

But be careful what you wish for, especially if you are a woman running for the US Senate in Massachusetts.

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Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat expected to go up against Republican Senator Scott Brown, eagerly attacked his support for the so-called Blunt amendment, which would allow insurers and employers to deny coverage of health services they find morally objectionable. A war of words and radio ads erupted between them regarding contraception and the conscience clause for church-affiliated institutions. Brown even took out his political Ouija board and professed to divine the late Ted Kennedy’s position on it.

It all started when the Obama administration ruled that church-affiliated institutions must provide health insurance that fully covers birth control. Catholic bishops objected so ferociously that the White House offered a compromise. It calls for employees to get coverage directly from their insurance companies. With the bishops still unsatisfied, Brown threw his support to a proposal by US Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican. Blunt’s amendment allows organizations, generally, to refuse to provide health insurance that covers practices to which they object on moral grounds.

National polling shows that President Obama gained support from women as a result of his contraception stand. But how it all plays out in Massachusetts is hazier. A poll from Suffolk University released on Feb. 17 showed Brown 9 points ahead of Warren, but that was before the contraception issue gained much local traction.

Warren’s problem isn’t so much about policy. While Massachusetts has a large Catholic population, the general population is socially liberal. It’s more about the danger of morphing into the “woman’s candidate’’ in a state that has big problems electing women to higher office, whether they are Republicans or Democrats.

Warren entered the race with a purely economic message. She was the consumer protection angel who would fight Wall Street and protect middle-class interests and values. Not to sound like an alarmist - although it’s hard to resist, given the weight of political history in this state - but there’s risk in allowing the public to start viewing her primarily as the Bay State’s protector of reproductive rights in Washington.

It didn’t help Martha Coakley, the last woman to run against Brown. During the Democratic primary, Coakley was the only candidate who pledged to vote against health care reform if the so-called Stupak amendment was not stripped from the legislation. The stated purpose of the amendment, proposed by Democratic US Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, was to prohibit the use of federal funds “to pay for an abortion or to cover any part of the costs of any health plant hat includes coverage of abortion.’’ With support from then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it was adopted by the House on the theory that it was the only way to advance health care reform; the Senate ultimately eliminated it.

Liberal women and pro-choice organizations praised Coakley for her stand. But in the end, it didn’t help her and may have hurt her in the special election she lost to Brown.

This time, birth control, not abortion, is the heart of the controversy. Warren is taking care to express respect for the Roman Catholic Church and the general premise of a conscience clause. She also said she supports Obama’s fallback position, rather than the initial policy that Catholic bishops found repugnant. But nuance isn’t enough to stop the other side from trying to turn the liberal sisterhood and their pet causes into the albatross they can become.

Meanwhile, Brown already calls her “Professor Warren,’’ trying to brand her as an out-of-touch elitist. Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr slyly dubbed her “Granny Warren,’’ trying to paint her as the little old lady from Pasadena via Harvard Square. She’s obviously a smart, articulate, and confident candidate. But while her advocacy of birth control coverage makes feminist hearts flutter, it may be a little too breathless and self-righteous for others.

Just like Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Warren should reclaim the economic turf. That’s what the election is really about.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

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