It’s becoming clearer by the moment that the battle over the contraceptive coverage mandate is only going to intensify, with real repercussions for the 2012 Congressional and presidential campaigns.

If you want to understand why Republicans are committing to this fight, despite polls suggesting a majority sides with the White House on the issue, this must-read New York Times piece provides an answer. Christian and conservative groups are gearing up to get fully engaged, and have persuaded themselves that it will be a good issue against Obama this fall:

Major evangelical groups that openly opposed Mr. Obama and his health care plan in the past see this as a new affront and a new opportunity for attack.

The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents thousands of churches in 40 denominations, “will be working vigorously” against the mandate, said Galen Carey, the association’s vice president for government relations — lending substance to the statement last week by Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and a Baptist minister, that “we are all Catholics now.”

Evangelical leaders say they would be outraged by the mandate in any case, but many also believe that it will bring them political gains. Mr. Reed, the conservative strategist, said that even if a majority of Americans expressed general support for requiring contraceptive coverage — and even if, as he believes, the economy remained the primary issue — getting conservative and religious voters more fired up could make a difference.

“Among key voter groups in key battleground states, this issue in combination with others is not going to be helpful to Obama,” he said.

So conservative groups see this as a good way to rev up the base. But the question is, at what cost among swing voters?

Conservatives see this as a good way to relitigate “Obamacare,” and to advance a key subtext about Obama, which is that he wants to expand the reach of government into matters of faith and harbors a deep-seated hostility to religious values. But it’s my bet that this won’t square with voter perceptions of Obama and that the public will reject this framing of the issue. And it may even allow Dems to try to resell health reform on more friendly political turf. Independents, moderates, and women all overwhelmingly agree with Obama on this issue.

But if this becomes a preoccupation of the conservative base, Republicans may go all in on making this a centeral election year fight.

* General Motors announces record profits: A big chunk of good news for Obama that will drive discussion today: GM earned its highest profit ever last year.

Chuck Todd tweets: “The only worse timing for Romney regarding GM’s record profits announcement would be if it were the day before the MI primary.”

Oh, come on, Chuck. This isn’t a problem for Romney at all. He’ll simply argue, as he did the other day, that things would be better still if not for Obama’s auto bailout.

* Payroll tax cut deal a sign of Obama’s rising popularity? Negotiators have reached a deal to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance, and Ezra Klein sees it as potential validation of the White House’s new confrontational approach and of Obama’s rising popularity:

Would this deal have happened if the president’s numbers were weaker, if the economy was in worse shape, and if the Republican primary was producing a more able set of champions? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Rather, it looks as if the president’s strengthened position and his clear appetite for further conflict led Republicans to conclude that compromise might serve them better in this case.

There’s little question that this will encourage the White House to stick with its newly aggressive populism and its strategy of running against Congress with direct public pressure on lawmakers to act. It’s worth noting, though, that this fight was over a tax cut — not a relatively hard one to win. Of course, that fact is also a reminder of the degree to which House Tea Partyers — who balked at the extension twice and forced a far more damaging battle last year than necessary — have made life politically difficult for the GOP leadership and damaged the party’s brand.

Still, Republicans — who did manage to win some concessions — and Democrats both deserve credit for reaching this deal. It’s good news for the recovery, which, if it continues to accelerate, will buoy Obama further and perhaps help produce further legislative victories.

* Campaign 2012 will focus heavily on manufacturing jobs: The Post has a nicely reported piece on the surprising growth of the manufacturing sector, particularly in crucial swing states, and what it will mean for the 2012 campaign.

With Obama and the GOP set to have an epic argument over whether government should have a role in helping create and save factory jobs — the auto bailout is Exhibit A — this is another arena in which Campaign 2012 will come down to a simple question: Which side is right about how are jobs created?

Also: Keep an eye on Obama’s policies to promote “insourcing,” because they’ll be a key part of his pitch to struggling swing state voters.

* Romney faces a serious challenge in Michigan: Scott Conroy has a useful overview of all the reasons Romney may not win this extremely high-stakes primary, despite his deep ties in the state. Key nugget: “In a May 2010 survey conducted by Bernie Porn’s polling firm, EPIC-MRA, 51 percent of Michigan Republicans said that the auto bailout was a good idea, while 43 percent called it a bad idea.”

A failure to win here ensures that the contest will continue well after Super Tuesday, forcing Romney to continue tacking right and delaying his pivot into general election mode.

* Santorum-mentum in Michigan!!! Relatedly, a Detroit News poll finds Santorum leading Romney among Michigan republicans by 34-30. Key finding: “Despite Romney’s win here in 2008 and the built-in advantages of name recognition and familiarity, party regulars appear to have doubts about his conservative credentials and the worth of his Michigan ties.”

The crux of Santorum’s argument will be: Voters here already know Romney very well, but they’re still not willing to coalesce around him as their nominee.

* Romney’s evaporating electability argument: E.J. Dionne gets it: The improving economy, and the revelations the GOP primary has brought to swing voters about Romney’s wealth and low millionaire tax rate, have peeled back the thin veneer of electability that Romney has enjoyed so long.

As I’ve been noting, the question is whether his general election weaknesses had been papered over by his foes’ far worse weaknesses — and whether that may change now that Santorum is the not-Romney.

* Chart of the day: Romney and independents:Another way to measure the damage Romney has sustained for the general election is to look at the degree to which he’s losing independents to Obama.

This chart illustrates it nicely.

* Growth of minority vote will be central in 2012: As Ronald Brownstein says, you can’t overstate the degree to which Obama’s reelection could hinge on whether the minority vote rises to 28 percent of the overall vote share. Team Obama is watching this demographic shift very closely.

* And behold Obama’s fictional war on religion: Stephanie Mencimer finds a clever way to debunk the latest right wing fantasy:

When it comes to religious organizations and their treatment by the federal government, the Obama administration has been extremely generous. Religious groups have benefited handsomely from Obama’s stimulus package, budgets, and other policies. Under Obama, Catholic religious charities alone have received more than $650 million.

What else?