Reuters — A rare burst of good news on President Barack Obama’s health care program has given Democrats their first glimmer of hope in months on an issue that has helped drag the party down ahead of November’s U.S. congressional elections.

A better-than-expected enrollment of 7.1 million people in health care exchanges under “Obamacare” gives Democrats a positive argument to counter relentless Republican calls to repeal the law, and could help them change the topic to the bread-and-butter economic and job issues Democrats prefer to talk about.

Democrats still face a tough challenge to improve public views of the law, particularly in conservative states where endangered senators like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas could face a steep political price at the polls for their support of Obamacare.

Dissatisfaction with Obama and opposition to the 2010 health care law remains strong among core GOP voters, which has helped to crank up their enthusiasm and bolster several strong bids to unseat Democrats who supported it. But now, Democrats say, Republicans will have to make their own political calculation about how hard to push for repeal of a law that will provide health coverage to millions of Americans.

“It’s a new ballgame now that people are signed up and getting benefits. This puts Republicans in the position of fighting to take benefits away from people who have them, and that’s a tougher argument,” said Democratic consultant Doug Hattaway.

In announcing the sign-ups, Obama declared that the debate about repeal was over and “the Affordable Care Act is here to stay.”

The enrollment boost followed months of glitches and bad publicity about the law, including the badly botched rollout of the program’s prime website.

GOP strategist Ron Bonjean said the law is unpopular enough that the number of people who signed up was irrelevant. “There is a stigma around Obamacare, and Democrats are not going to get very far arguing that everything is better now,” he said. “But the spotlight will probably shine a little less on the issue now that the deadline is passed, so it’s important for Republicans to start talking about jobs and the economy.”

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