By CHARLES BABINGTON
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court, suddenly at the heart of presidential politics, is preparing what could be blockbuster rulings on health care and immigration shortly before the fall election.
The court, sometimes an afterthought in presidential elections, is throwing a new element of uncertainty into the campaign taking shape between President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Sharply divided between four conservatives, four liberals and one conservative-leaning swing justice, the court already is viewed as being nearly as partisan as Congress. Within weeks it will rule on the contentious 2010 Democratic-crafted health care overhaul and a Republican-backed Arizona law that's seen as a model for cracking down on illegal immigrants.
Obama sometimes seems to be running against the court, or at least its conservative members. Whether that will sway voters in November is unclear. The public receives far less information and visual imagery of the Supreme Court than it does of the White House and Congress.
An anti-court strategy by Obama "will fire up his base, but I doubt it will make any bigger impact on swing voters," said Republican consultant John Feehery.
Meanwhile, strategists in both parties are hoping they can turn the upcoming decisions to their advantage _ for instance, possibly boosting Democratic turnout among Hispanic voters unhappy with GOP immigration policies or emboldening the Republican base if Obama's landmark health care law is ruled unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court already has played a questioned Congress' authority to require all Americans to obtain health insurance.
Romney may be poorly positioned to exploit such a ruling, however. The similar "individual mandate" that he successfully pushed as Massachusetts governor was a model for Obama's federal plan.
"I don't think the Romney campaign will want to make health care a major issue," said Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway. "Every time Romney criticizes the president's health care reform, he opens himself up to the Etch A Sketch attack."
Hattaway was referring to claims that Romney switches back and forth on important policies, erasing and redrawing pages when convenient.
Republican strategist Terry Holt said a court decision overturning the health care law would be an unmistakable setback for Obama.
"It repudiates the singular achievement of this administration," Holt said.
Feehery agreed, saying such a ruling would make Obama "look like a weak president."
But it might help other Democrats, Feehery said. "It takes away a law that is unpopular," he said, "but puts health care back on the agenda for the Democrats, which has been a winning issue in the past."
In the immigration case, the Obama administration opposes Arizona's requirement that police check the legal status of people they stop for other reasons.
The law, pushed by a Republican governor and Legislature, has angered some voters, including Hispanics, in battleground states such as Florida, New Mexico and Colorado.
A number of court analysts predict the justices will uphold parts of the Arizona law but may overturn others. That could energize Americans who want tougher sanctions, including deportation, against millions of illegal immigrants in the country.
"This could prove problematic for Romney," Feehery said, because it would pit his conservative base against much-needed Hispanic voters in targeted states. "If Romney handles it said spokesman Jay Carney, is that the Supreme Court traditionally has "deferred to Congress' authority in matters of national economic importance."