Monday, April 24, 2006

Democrats Hope to Divide G.O.P. Over Stem Cells

The New York Times
Democrats Hope to Divide G.O.P. Over Stem Cells

COLUMBIA, Mo., April 19 — Democrats are pressing their support for embryonic stem cell research in Congressional races around the country, seeking to move back to center stage an issue they believe resonates with voters and to exploit a division between conservatives who oppose the science and other Republicans more open to it.

The question of whether the government should support or limit stem cell research has cropped up in Senate races in Maryland and Missouri, and in House races in California, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin, especially in suburban swing districts.

"What Democrats want to do is gin up their turnout in the suburbs and divide Republicans, and right now they may do that," said Jennifer E. Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "This is the first real wedge issue Democrats have had with Republicans."

The topic may not have the power of those frequently used by Republicans to rally their conservative base, like same-sex marriage and abortion. But it could help Democrats win voters who are pinning their hopes on the science for treatments and cures.

It may also influence voter turnout in some races, including here in Missouri, where a proposed constitutional amendment to protect stem cell research is making front-page news, and the incumbent Republican senator, Jim Talent, is facing a tough re-election challenge from the state auditor, Claire McCaskill, a Democrat.

On Tuesday, Ms. McCaskill appeared in the central Missouri town of Fayette, population 2,793, for a wine-and-cheese reception at an antiques shop and, later, for a dinner of roast beef and potatoes in the brightly lit social hall of St. Joseph's, a Roman Catholic church. A Catholic church is hardly the kind of place where most politicians would talk up embryonic stem cell studies — church leaders are fiercely opposed — but Ms. McCaskill did just that.

"There are people of principle who disagree with this form of research," Ms. McCaskill told her audience. "I respect their principles. But what I don't respect is someone dancing around science for political cover."

It was a pointed barb at Mr. Talent, a first-term Republican who has publicly wrestled with the stem cell issue and has avoided taking a stand on the proposed amendment. The initiative, destined for the November ballot if supporters gather enough signatures, is intended to beat back efforts to ban the research in Missouri. It would permit stem cell studies as long as they remain legal under federal law.

With the Talent-McCaskill race too close to call, the initiative has thrust Mr. Talent into a treacherous Republican crosscurrent. On one side are Christian conservatives, who gave Mr. Talent their strong support when he ran for office in 2002 and are threatening not to vote unless he takes a stand on the amendment.

On the other are business-minded Republicans, like Gov. Matt Blunt and John C. Danforth, a former United States senator, who back the initiative, saying the science holds promise not only for patients, but also for the economic health of the state.

Mr. Danforth, an Episcopal minister, and his brother, William, the chancellor emeritus of Washington University in St. Louis, have taken a prominent role in promoting the amendment.

"It's a hard issue for him," Mr. Danforth said, referring to Mr. Talent.

Although scientists see hope in embryonic stem cell research for treatments and cures, opponents view the studies as immoral because the cells are extracted from human embryos. Research can be conducted freely with private money, but whether the government should pay for it has been a vexing question for Republicans.

President Bush tackled the topic in August 2001 by imposing strict limits on taxpayer financing of embryonic stem cell research. He has vowed to veto any measure that would loosen those restrictions. But the House defied the president last year in voting to do just that.

With the one-year anniversary of the House vote coming in May, backers of stem cell studies are planning a series of events intended to press the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist — who has broken with the president to support the House bill — into bringing the measure to a vote.

On Tuesday, the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, an advocacy group, plans to have a researcher brief lawmakers in Washington on his work.

Around the country, Democrats in seven House races are highlighting the stem cell issue with advertisements distributed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The advertisements spotlight Republicans like Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and the former first lady Nancy Reagan who have been vocal supporters of the research.

"This is a personal issue because it holds out hope for a lot of people," said Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat running for Congress in suburban Denver. Mr. Perlmutter knows that firsthand: his daughter has epilepsy, and his in-laws have diabetes, disorders that may be helped by stem cell research.

The stem cell issue has also figured in the Maryland Senate race. Democrats there seized on a statement by the Republican candidate, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who opposes the destruction of embryos for research. In February, Mr. Steele likened such studies to Nazi experiments in a speech before a Jewish group. The wife of a leading Democratic contender for Senate, Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, was in the audience, and Mr. Steele later apologized.

But nowhere has the stem cell issue been more potent than here in the political bellwether state of Missouri, where Mr. Talent was elected to the Senate in 2002.

Through a spokesman, the senator declined to be interviewed, saying he had already articulated his views in a lengthy Senate speech. In it, he focused on a type of study that involves obtaining stem cells by cloning human embryos, calling for a government competition to spur scientists to find alternative methods.

But Mr. Talent also took his name off a sweeping anti-cloning bill, saying he feared the measure might preclude those alternatives. Many Christian conservatives and Catholic leaders were outraged.

"Most pro-life voters just feel he's turned his back on them," said Larry Weber, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, who opposes embryonic stem cell research.

The big question in Missouri is whether those voters, who helped put Mr. Talent in office, will shun him now. Here in Columbia, a college town where life centers around the University of Missouri, Dennis Ballard, a patron at a downtown coffeehouse, said he wanted Mr. Talent to take a position on the ballot measure.

"I'll not vote for a Democrat," said Mr. Ballard, a retired medical administrator who voted for Mr. Talent in 2002. "But I'll hold the option of staying home and not voting for a Republican who won't take a position."

John Hancock, a consultant to the Talent campaign, said he doubted such sentiment would affect the race. "Senator Talent's very thoughtful position on stem cell, when it is clearly understood," Mr. Hancock said, "is going to be very well received by all Missourians."