Republicans tout terror fight, silent on stem cells

Sunday, February 5, 2006

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Republican Party's elected leaders stressed the fight against terror and the war in Iraq. They touted the economy, renewable energy sources and the need for ethics reforms.

But no one talked about one underlying concern at the GOP's annual Lincoln Days conference -- no one, that is, until Republican Stella Sowers publicly broached the issue of embryonic stem-cell research during a question-and-answer session Saturday with politicians.

The man at the microphone happened to be U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof.

"This is the elephant in the room that people have been loath to talk about," Hulshof told more than 100 fellow Republicans as he sought to explain the silence about a proposed statewide ballot measure protecting stem-cell research.

"This referendum has the potential to rip our party apart," said Hulshof, who later warned: "If we allow this statewide referendum to divide us as a party, then we have lost."

Hulshof drew cheers as he urged Republicans to stand behind their candidates despite potential difference of opinion on embryonic stem cell research.

Missouri Right to Life, the Missouri Baptist Convention and the Missouri Catholic Conference all have denounced a procedure known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, or therapeutic cloning. In that procedure, researchers replace the nucleus of a human egg with that of a skin cell or another adult body part, then stimulate it to grow in a lab dish and harvest the resulting stem cells.

Some researchers say those stem cells have the potential to cure or treat diseases. But some opponents contend the procedure amounts to the destruction of human life at its earliest stages.

Gov. Matt Blunt is the most prominent Missouri Republican to support the procedure. He has thrown his support behind a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing that all federally allowed stem-cell research -- including therapeutic cloning -- could occur in Missouri.

Sen. Jim Talent sponsored federal legislation that would have made procedure illegal. But he has not taken a position on the ballot measure. His Democratic opponent, State Auditor Claire McCaskill, already has announced her support for the stem-cell initiative.

Adding to the undercurrent at Lincoln Days was the fact that Saturday night's featured speaker -- Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, of Tennessee -- endorsed government funding for embryonic stem-cell research last year.

Other Republican Party leaders, in interviews Friday and Saturday during the GOP conference, acknowledged that stem-cell research is one of the most potentially divisive issues to confront the party recently. But they also expressed confidence that it would not harm their candidates' chances this fall.

"Our party is divided on that issue because we're a big-tent party," said national Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman. "The fact is that if your family is bigger, when you have dinner there are more arguments. What we're going to do is focus on where we agree, not areas we disagree about."

Mehlman, for example, focused in his speech to Missouri Republicans on President Bush's national security efforts, the economy and the need to take a stand against Washington, D.C., corruption.

Talent, a frequently featured speaker at the conference, focused on foreign policy, his efforts to fight methamphetamine and his support of renewable fuel standards, among other things.

Regardless of what position he ultimately takes on the stem cell ballot issue, Talent expressed confidence that it would not seriously hurt his chances among Republican and independent voters.

"What they want is for you to be thoughtful and reasonable and open-minded," Talent said. "And generally, they don't vote based on one issue."

But Sollars, a Republican ward committeewoman in Kansas City, said Blunt's support of early stem cell research has caused her to hope for a Republican challenger in the 2008 gubernatorial election.

She wasn't ready to abandon her support of Talent. But she said Talent and other Republican politicians need to take a moral stand in opposition of embryonic stem cell research, just like many already have on abortion.

"That issue of stem cells is the undercover issue that people are going to be voting on," Sollars said.

Missouri Democratic Party spokesman Jack Cardetti said most Democrats support embryonic stem cell research.

"The Republicans are caught between two masters here," Cardetti said. "The people funding much of the stem cell research in the state are deep-pocketed Republican donors who are tugging at the party on the one side while the right-wing base is tugging at the party from the other side.

"Republicans," Cardetti said, "are still trying to find out what is better politically for them."

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