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Stem-cell vote blurs religion-based politics

WASHINGTON -- In a campaign that played out like a red state/blue state version of the Hatfields and the McCoys, the issue of embryonic stem-cell research was one of many nails poured into the blue-state blunderbuss and fired across the Mason-Dixon line.

It may have been the only one that hit its target. The biggest McCoy of all, California, voted to authorize spending up to $3 billion over 10 years on stem-cell research -- a plan intended as a direct assault on President Bush's strict limits on embryonic stem-cell research and, by extension, on the politics of religious values that underlay the Bush campaign.

Political movements, like the best surfer waves, tend to flow from West to East. With little to comfort them since Bush's victory last week, Democrats can only hope the stem-cell revolt will follow the same path as the tax revolts of the late '70s and the immigration revolts of the early '90s.

The California stem-cell referendum was extraordinary in many respects. It put a state government in the business of medical research, taking on a job that normally falls to the federal government and private sector. And while many state referendums seem more symbolic than real -- a chance for citizens to cast a meaningless protest vote -- this one delivered big money. The $3 billion is, by some measures, more than John F. Kerry promised in his plan to ramp up stem-cell research.

California's investment could, by itself, put such research at the forefront of the search for cures for Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, spinal-cord injuries, and other afflictions. For US scientists who feared they would never get access to new lines of stem cells because of Bush's decision to restrict federal funding to research with a handful of mostly unusable existing lines, the California decision was a godsend.

States like Massachusetts and Wisconsin, which had been alongside California at the forefront of embryonic stem-cell research before Bush's restrictions, now are likely to cede to California the title of stem-cell-research capital of the world.

But the victory for medical research is also a rebuke to Bush's efforts to make religious values a threshold for government-funded science. The frozen embryos used in stem-cell research are usually supplied by fertility clinics that would otherwise discard them. But Bush, who in the second debate declared that ''embryonic stem-cell research requires the destruction of life to create a stem cell," believes that allowing new lines violates the sanctity of life.

Much as the emergence of ''partial-birth" abortions changed the political debate about abortion in a way that made ''pro-choice" absolutists seem unreasonable, the stem-cell issue pushes the extremes of the ''pro-life" position. Many Republicans opposed to abortion rights, such as Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, support embryonic stem-cell research: Some consider it the ultimate ''pro-life" position, since it is aimed at curing deadly diseases.

If the research seeded by California shows progress, Bush will come under increasing pressure to lift his federal restrictions -- something he almost certainly will not do. That would provide tangible evidence of the price of Bush's religion-based politics, a demonstration of how policies based on religious values are impervious to the usual political constraints, be they scientific evidence, changed circumstances, or growing popular opinion.

In winning reelection, Bush seemed to get the benefits of campaigning on behalf of religious values with few of the costs; by speaking in euphemisms like ''support for life" he signaled his feelings to fellow believers but sidestepped the furious debate that would attend a more pointed discussion of banning abortion or blocking stem-cell research.

It is a discussion that Republican strategists, despite their concrete base of red states, probably do not want. Bush's increased popular vote in 2004 came largely in states that already supported him overwhelmingly; he gained nothing in the core blue states, and lost ground in swing states such as Oregon, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and even Ohio.

Exit polls in California suggested that the stem-cell issue cut across age, income, and racial lines and was potent enough to pass with nearly 60 percent of the vote in a state still mired in a fiscal crisis. The stem-cell referendum outpolled Kerry by 4 points.

Arthur Caplan, who heads the bioethics program at the University of Pennsylvania, predicted the referendum could have the perverse effect of reducing pressure on Bush to lift the federal ban -- at first. But if people start being cured of chronic diseases, the issue will return with a vengeance.

''If it delivers, there will be a lot of pressure to lift the federal ban," Caplan said. ''But I'm not looking for any breakthroughs for three to four years."

By Caplan's timetable, the wave will hit right before the next presidential election, when Republicans under the tutelage of Karl Rove -- the prime architect of Bush's strategy of rallying evangelical voters -- will be looking to consolidate their gains.

By then, an issue that was an asterisk in this year's campaign could strike with the force of an exclamation point.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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