WASHINGTON -- Though they are plunging into a six-hour, nationally televised health care summit Thursday, neither President Barack Obama nor Republican lawmakers especially wanted to be talking about health care right now.
And the fact that they are doing it anyway presents opportunities, but also serious risks for both.
By this point in the calendar, the White House had thought its health care overhaul would be completed, allowing Obama to swivel to the near 10 percent unemployment rate that has left Americans so unnerved. Republicans had hoped the plan would be dead - a casualty of the Democrats' loss last month of the 60-vote margin needed to end filibusters.
Yet both sides will now debate health care anew. And the summit, while containing undeniable elements of political theater, could carry major implications for both health care and November's midterm congressional elections.
Obama will preside over the meeting at a moment when Democrats seem to be regrouping after Republican Scott Brown's victory in the Massachusetts race - the election that cost them their supermajority.
Few leaders in either party see much possibility that the summit will break the partisan impasse and produce a consensus for a health care bill.
But that only raises the stakes.
A compelling performance from the president before a national TV audience could rally public opinion, an outcome that might in turn lock down the votes of some liberal and conservative Democrats who have wavered in their willingness to endorse the Senate-passed version of health care. (Doing so is the only viable way to avoid a high-profile failure on their top domestic priority, Democratic leaders believe.)
A weak performance, on the other hand, or a public display of partisan bickering or sloganeering by congressional Democrats could send prospects for health care and the party's political fortunes plunging.
Republicans, meantime, are expected to press their argument that Obama should throw out his massive overhaul proposal and start from scratch - something the White House has already indicated it won't do.
U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who will take part in the summit, said: "The president has already set the stage poorly because he has taken the Senate bill, which is 2,700 pages of legislative text, put out 11 pages of his own and said, ‘This is what we're going to talk about.' And our position is, ‘No. Let's don't start with dueling pieces of legislation. Let's start with our own ideas and see what we can agree on.' "
Republicans have little political incentive to cooperate - except to avoid appearing overly partisan or obstructionist.
A new poll by Republican pollster Bill McIntuff suggested that opposing the plan could pay dividends for the GOP in the November elections. Opposition to the health care plan is particularly pronounced among independent voters, "tea party" supporters and those keenly interested in the mid-terms, according to the survey's findings.
By focusing on parts of the overhaul that Americans don't like - the secretive, deal-driven way the bill moved through Congress, for example - Republicans could undermine public support in ways that doom the legislation's prospects.
That's a result Democrats need to avoid because, they say, health care is unavoidably bound up with the Democrats' prospects in November.
"Failure to pass a bill of any kind presents real problems for us in the midterms," Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist, said in an interview.
"If it doesn't pass, the message to the American people is that Democrats can't get anything done."