In a survey of 1,000 adults taken Tuesday, 34% say demonstrations at the hometown sessions have made them more sympathetic to the protesters' views; 21% say they are less sympathetic.
Independents by 2-to-1, 35%-16%, say they are more sympathetic to the protesters now.
The findings are unwelcome news for President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders, who have scrambled to respond to the protests and in some cases even to be heard. From Pennsylvania to Texas, those who oppose plans to overhaul the health care system have asked aggressive questions and staged noisy demonstrations.
The forums have grabbed public attention: Seven in 10 respondents are following the news closely.
"No one condones the actions of those who disrupt public events," House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said in an op-ed article published in today's USA TODAY. "But those in Washington who dismiss the frustration of the American people and call it 'manufactured' do so at their own peril."
White House adviser David Axelrod questioned the USA TODAY survey's methodology, saying those who report being more sympathetic to the protesters now were likely to have been on that side from the start. "There is a media fetish about these things," Axelrod said of the protests, "but I don't think this has changed much" when it comes to public opinion.
A study by the non-partisan Pew Research Center concluded that 59% of the airtime last week on 13 cable TV and radio talk shows were devoted to the health care debate.
In the USA TODAY Poll:
• A 57% majority of those surveyed, including six in 10 independents, say a major factor behind the protests are concerns that average citizens had well before the meetings took place; 48% say efforts by activists to create organized opposition to the health care bills are a major factor.
• There's some tolerance for loud voices: 51% say individuals making "angry attacks" on a health care bill are an example of "democracy in action" rather than "abuse of democracy."
• Some actions are seen as going too far. Six in 10 say shouting down supporters of a bill is an abuse of democracy. On that question, unlike most others, there isn't much of a partisan divide: 69% of Democrats and 58% of Republicans agree.
In Hagerstown, Md., Wednesday, nearly 1,000 people turned out for a forum held by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin; only 440 could fit in the community-college theater. The crowd often interrupted the senator, but was generally respectful.
In State College, Pa., Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter was jeered at a forum at a Penn State conference center. The 90-minute meeting at times became a shouting match between bill backers and foes.