- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2006

The debate over embryonic stem-cell research surged onto the scene in several political races in the final weeks before the election, spurred in part by actor Michael J. Fox’s ads on behalf of some Democratic candidates.

But Democrats say they’ve been chipping away at the issue for more than a year, betting it will make a difference with voters in middle America.

“Stem-cell research has been an issue that we have focused a lot of attention on — ads, e-mails, mail, Web ads — for a good 18 months. We have always believed this would be an important issue, particularly in suburban districts,” said Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“Democrats see this as their ‘marriage’ issue, their wedge,” said Tom McClusky, vice president for governmental affairs at the Family Research Council. The fight is on “to prove them wrong,” he said.

In July, President Bush issued his first veto to block a bill, approved overwhelmingly by both chambers, that would have overturned his limits on federal support for embryonic stem-cell research. Democratic candidates subsequently have accused Republican opponents of standing in the way of life-saving cures from such research.

Mr. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease, recorded ads for Democratic Senate candidates Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in Maryland, as well as Wisconsin Gov. James E. Doyle, who is running for re-election. The ads caused more ruckus when conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh said Mr. Fox had stopped taking medication to worsen his symptoms for the camera’s benefit. Mr. Limbaugh has since apologized.

Republican candidates nationwide have said that their position is being distorted and that they support research that uses adult stem cells but does not require the destruction of embryos.

“The false impression that’s trying to be made is that Republicans don’t support stem-cell research or are looking to somehow outlaw it. It’s simply not the case,” said Dan Ronayne of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

In a recent “Meet the Press” debate, Maryland Republican Senate candidate Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said Mr. Cardin’s ad makes it seem that Mr. Steele doesn’t support stem-cell research. “I do,” he said. “Where I have drawn the line is federal funding for research that destroys an embryo.”

Mr. Steele, like other Republicans, fought back with his own ad on the issue.

The issue likely will have the biggest effect in Missouri, which will vote on a ballot initiative to create a state constitutional right to engage in embryonic stem-cell research. Democrats also have raised the issue in House races in Illinois, Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Pennsylvania. It has emerged in the Maryland governor’s race and New Jersey Senate race.

Democrat Patrick Murphy in Pennsylvania has accused Republican Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick of flip-flopping by backing Mr. Bush “in opposition to this life-saving research.” Mr. Fitzpatrick’s chief of staff said he has mailed explanations that he has strongly supported research on adult stem cells and cord blood.

Similar attacks have come from House Democratic candidates in Iowa and Illinois.

Maryland’s Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., is running an ad saying that he has made the state a national leader in stem-cell research, though the ad did not specify which kind.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres said this “can be a very effective issue” for Democrats. A Republican operative said it “hasn’t moved numbers” as Democrats had hoped.

But Sean Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, said it’s clear that Republicans who side with Mr. Bush know they’re in trouble because most Americans favor the bill he vetoed. “They know it’s a political loser” to support Mr. Bush’s policy, he said of Republicans. “I see no one running ads saying, ‘I stood with Bush.’ ”

In a Newsweek poll last week by Princeton Survey Research Associates, 50 percent said they favor using tax dollars to fund research using stem cells obtained from human embryos and 37 percent said they oppose it. At the same time, the issue ranked low among voters’ priorities, trailing matters such as Iraq, the economy, health care and terrorism.

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