Democrats seek gains in stem-cell issue

After Bush's veto last week, it could be a tipping point that favors Democrats in key races, experts say.

President Bush's veto last week of legislation supporting embryonic stem-cell research put the issue to rest for now, at least in Congress.

But as a political matter, the issue is far from over. On Monday, presidential spokesman Tony Snow softened the rhetoric on stem cells, saying that Mr. Bush in fact does not consider the destruction of human embryos for such research to be "murder," but rather "the destruction of human life."

To supporters of such research, the shift signaled a concern that the White House needed to reach out to moderate Republican voters who are vital in several key races, many in suburban districts, as the GOP seeks to keep control of Congress.

And in races across the country, stem-cell research remains a hot topic, one that Democrats – and a few Republicans – are hoping will make the difference, even amid a crowded issue agenda that puts Iraq, gas prices, and immigration at the top of the list. The thinking is that just about everyone knows someone with a medical condition that scientists say could be helped someday through such research.

"It's not that [stem-cell research] is a silver-bullet issue," says Amy Walter, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Rather, "it's a way to connect with suburban swing voters on social issues, but one that is not as polarizing as abortion."

The list of races where embryonic stem-cell research is playing a role continues to grow: At least two Republican House members – both representing suburban districts and locked in tough reelection races – changed their positions in last week's failed attempt to override Bush's veto. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania and Dave Reichert of Washington are both now in synch with their Democratic opponents, who favor additional federal funding of research.

In suburban Chicago, the issue is prominent in two tight House races – one to fill the seat of retiring Republican Henry Hyde and the other, first-term Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean's race against Republican David McSweeney, in which the issue has figured from the start of the race.

But the state with the most focused attention is Missouri, where a ballot initiative supporting research has stoked the embryonic stem-cell issue in races up and down the ballot. It plays prominently in the battle between first-term Sen. Jim Talent and his opponent, Democratic state auditor Claire McCaskill.

And in a race for the Missouri state senate, a group supporting a primary challenger to Sen. Matt Bartle (R) put up a TV ad earlier this month focused solely on stem-cell research. It features a wheelchair-bound young man who was injured in a diving accident, calling on voters to support the challenger, Bob Johnson. "Don't outlaw hope in Missouri," says the man, Robert Willis.

Two other new TV ads mentioning or focusing on embryonic stem-cell research have aired this month: One is paid for by former Colorado state Sen. Ed Perlmutter, who is running in the Aug. 8 primary to compete for the open US House seat. Mr. Perlmutter's ad supports public funding of research and features his daughter, who has epilepsy.

The newest ad, which aired the day of the Bush veto, was in Wisconsin on behalf of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, praising him on a range of issues, from stem-cell research to taxes to education. That type of ad, placing stem cells among a range of issues, is the more probable model for political ads this fall, says Ms. Walter.

The stem-cell issue is also figuring in Senate races in Ohio, Virginia, Montana, and Minnesota, and in House races in New Jersey and New York.

Looking over the national landscape, Evan Tracey, a political advertising expert at TNS Media Intelligence, says the stem-cell issue will be "somewhat regionalized.... Obviously, this isn't an issue anyone will engage in the deep South."

Carl Forti, spokesman for the House Republican campaign committee, predicts that the embryonic stem-cell issue won't figure in the November outcome. "Most members voted the way their districts wanted them to," he says.

Still, Mr. McSweeney, the Republican challenger in Illinois's 8th congressional district, voices some frustration over how the stem-cell issue is playing in his race. He says he believes his position is often distorted to make it sound as if he opposes all stem-cell research.

"I'm a big supporter of adult stem-cell research," he says. "I'm just opposed to federally funding embryonic stem-cell research."

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