Saturday, February 18, 2006

Stem-cell research splits US Republicans

Stem-cell research splits US Republicans
By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The emotional debate over embryonic stem-cell research has sharply split the Republican Party and could become a prominent election-year issue, with key U.S. Senate races in Missouri and Maryland emerging as early battlegrounds.

The Republican rift pits religious conservatives and abortion foes who oppose the research on moral grounds against supporters who tout its potential benefits in fighting diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

With polls showing large majorities of Americans backing stem-cell research, some Republican candidates find themselves stuck in the middle. Democrats, who largely support the research, are eager to take advantage of their quandary.

"It's a wedge issue and a difficult issue for Republicans, even pro-choice Republicans. It splits libertarian, free-market Republicans from social conservative Republicans, and that can only help Democrats," said Matthew Crenson, a political analyst at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

The stem-cell debate could gain prominence later this year when the Senate is expected to consider a bill, already approved by the House of Representatives, to permit more federal funding of stem-cell research on human embryos.

President George W. Bush, who limited such funds in 2001, has threatened to veto the legislation. It would be his first veto as president.

The stem-cell issue already has put Republican Senate candidates on the defensive in Missouri and Maryland, two key races in November's battle for control of the U.S. Congress.

In Missouri, supporters are gathering signatures to put a referendum on the state ballot in November that would protect certain types of stem-cell research.

The popular referendum has fractured state Republicans and put incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Talent on the spot. Talent, who faces a tough challenge from Democratic state auditor Claire McCaskill, a supporter of stem-cell research, has not taken a stand.

But he recently dropped support for a controversial ban on human cloning and offered a compromise on stem-cell research, angering conservatives who were among his base supporters.


"Talent is in a political no man's land where he is in the line of fire from people on both sides of the issue," said Sam Lee, director of Campaign Life Missouri, an anti-abortion lobbying group. Lee said opponents of stem-cell research were angry enough to skip voting for Talent in November.

In Maryland, Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who is running for the open seat of retiring Democrat Paul Sarbanes, apologized for remarks before Jewish leaders in Baltimore that seemed to compare stem-cell research to the Holocaust.

"You, of all folks, know what happens when people decide to experiment on human beings," Steele said.

He later expressed conditional support for embryonic stem-cell research but said it should be guided by "a moral compass."

Stem-cell research is opposed by conservative groups who compare it to abortion because it destroys embryos. But supporters, including some Republicans who oppose abortion rights, say the research offers crucial hope for medical breakthroughs.

Senate Republican leader Bill Frist angered some conservatives last year by breaking with Bush and seeking to ease limitations on stem-cell research.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry criticized Bush's decision to restrict such research. Other Bush critics have included former first lady Nancy Reagan, wife of conservative hero and former President Ronald Reagan.

But some Republicans say the issue was not a factor in 2004 and is not a driving force for most voters now.

"It would be hard to argue that an issue like this supersedes issues like the war on terror and the economy," said Brian Nick, spokesman for the Republican campaign committee.