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By David Lauter, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — As Obamacare sign-ups hit the politically important threshold of 6 million this week, new polling has shown that the public has begun to warm a bit to the controversial law, but opponents continue to care much more about it than supporters.

For both sides in the intensely fought argument over the Affordable Care Act, the new data provide encouragement mixed with caution.

Supporters of the law can point to a recent Kaiser Foundation survey, which found that over the last two months, opinions about the law have begun to improve. In January, Kaiser’s monthly polling found that opponents outnumbered supporters 50 percent to 34 percent. In the latest survey, opinion remained more negative than positive, but the gap had shrunk in half, to 46 percent to 38 percent.

Critically, approval of the law had increased among its target population — people who lack insurance. Opposition among the uninsured had dropped 11 percentage points since February and approval had increased by 15 percentage points, Kaiser found. That improvement coincided with the start of a major push by the law’s supporters to get people to sign up in advance of the March 31 open-enrollment deadline.

Kaiser’s survey also found, as several other polls have, that a significant majority of Americans oppose the idea of repealing Obamacare, as most Republican lawmakers advocate.

Almost half of those surveyed (49 percent) said they wanted Congress to “keep the law in place and work to improve it.” Another 10 percent said Congress should simply leave the law as is.

By contrast, about 3 in 10 either wanted the law repealed outright (18 percent) or repealed and replaced with a Republican alternative (11 percent).

On the other hand, the polling also shows that Republican opponents of the law have more intense feelings about it. The Kaiser survey found that a significant majority of those who favor the law said they were “tired of hearing” arguments about it. Not so for the opponents, who, by a narrow margin, were more inclined to say that continued debate over the law was “important for the country.”

Similarly, a recent Pew Research Center survey found, like Kaiser, that opponents of Obamacare outnumbered supporters (53 percent to 41 percent in the Pew survey). But about 4 in 10 Americans “very strongly” disapprove of the law while only about a quarter “very strongly” support it, Pew found.

All that plays into how people think about the fall’s midterm election. A recent CBS poll found that 70 percent of Republican voters were enthusiastic about voting in November; 58 percent of Democrats were. Pollsters from both parties agree that Obamacare provides one significant reason for that gap.

The polling also provides some glimpses into the law’s future. As most surveys have done, Kaiser’s most recent poll showed that the public likes individual parts of the law more than the whole.

Major provisions of the law are quite popular, including subsidies to help people buy insurance, expansion of Medicaid, the guarantee that people can’t be denied coverage because of pre-existing medical problems and the rule eliminating out-of-pocket costs for preventive care, Kaiser found. But 40 percent to 50 percent of Americans do not know that the law includes each of those provisions.

About a third of the uninsured were not aware that the law includes subsidies that could help them buy insurance.

The one provision of the law that is best known is its least popular — the requirement that all Americans get insurance. Nearly 80 percent of Americans know the law includes that mandate; only about a third approve of it.

But lack of knowledge about the rest of the law could change over time. Republicans are not likely to be able to repeal it — at least not while President Barack Obama remains in office — so millions of Americans likely will experience its coverage either directly or by hearing from friends or neighbors over the next few years.

As they do, a key question will be whether that personal experience causes the warming trend of the last couple of months to continue.

LeDawna’s Pics via Flickr

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