Two weeks before Election Day, advocates for abortion rights and stem cell research are trying to bring the polarizing social issues to center stage in the race for the U.S. Senate in Maryland.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin began last night airing a new television advertisement in which actor Michael J. Fox talks of his support for research that he says could lead to advances in treatment for Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and other conditions.
In Baltimore yesterday, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist urged students and faculty at the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health to support candidates who would promote scientific discovery over what he called ideology.
Over the weekend, Cardin affirmed his support for legal access to abortion, days after Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele was quoted as saying his opinion on Roe v. Wade was "moot" in the race for the seat now held by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.
The developments reflect a continued effort by Cardin to draw Steele into a debate on issues in which the congressman appears to hold an advantage with Marylanders. State polls have consistently shown that a majority of voters support abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research - positions held by Cardin, the Democratic nominee. Steele, the Republican nominee, opposes both.
The appeals to such voter-energizing issues here mirror similar efforts by Democrats nationwide, many of whom believe their party is within striking distance of wresting control of Congress from the Republicans. Democrats see keeping Sarbanes' seat in the blue column as critical to their hope of winning a Senate majority.
Cardin has attempted for weeks to engage Steele on abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Steele has made his positions on both known, but during campaign appearances and in a breezy series of television advertisements, he has focused less on specific issues than on projecting an aura of affability and talking about a need to change Washington.
Zach Messitte, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland, says Cardin is trying to focus the conversation back on policy, not personality.
"The Cardin campaign wants to talk about things like stem cell research and abortion and then Iraq because they certainly don't want to talk about who comes over better on television," Messitte said.
"Cardin is saying, well, OK, fine, but let's talk about where we stand on various hot-button issues that resonate with Marylanders."
Steele campaign spokesman Doug Heye says the lieutenant governor has talked consistently during the campaign about issues that matter to Maryland voters, including the economy, crime, the environment and energy prices.
"I understand that Ben Cardin might be upset that we have not engaged him in the way that he would like," Heye said. "Michael Steele is running a campaign to have a dialogue with Maryland voters, not with Ben Cardin."
Now Fox, the star of the Back to the Future movies and the television sitcoms Family Ties and Spin City, has weighed in with a 30-second spot airing statewide. The 45-year-old, his body wracked by tremors from Parkinson's disease, looks directly into the camera.
"George Bush and Michael Steele would put limits on the most promising stem cell research," he says. "Fortunately, Marylanders have a chance to vote for Ben Cardin.
"Cardin fully supports life-saving stem cell research. It's why I support Ben Cardin. And with so much at stake, I respectfully ask you to do the same."
Fox, who lobbied Congress earlier this year to increase the number of stem cell lines available for federally funded research, is campaigning this fall for several candidates who share his position.
The advertisement for Cardin is similar to a spot he filmed for Senate candidate Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. That ad drew national attention yesterday when radio personality Rush Limbaugh opined that Fox was "either off his medication or acting."
"This is exploitative in way that's unbecoming either Claire McCaskill or Michael J. Fox," said Limbaugh, according to a transcript posted on his Web site.
Fox agreed to film the Maryland advertisement after an associate met Myrna Cardin, the candidate's wife, at a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee event in Maryland last month, Cardin spokesman Oren Shur said.
Cardin had voted in favor of the bill to expand federally funded research. The measure ultimately cleared Congress but was vetoed by President Bush.
Steele, who likened embryonic stem cell research to Nazi experiments when he spoke to the Baltimore Jewish Council earlier this year, has said he supported Bush's veto. He subsequently apologized for the comment.
Heye said yesterday that Steele supports research on adult stem cells and umbilical stem cells. He said Steele would support using embryonic stem cells if the embryo were not destroyed. Steele and others object to the destruction of embryos for research whose benefits, some say, remain largely speculative.
Several states have sidestepped federal restrictions by funding their own research. With polls showing broad support in Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposed money this year for a Maryland program. After declining to endorse similar legislation in previous years, Ehrlich now calls attention to the initiative in campaign ads and mailings.
At Johns Hopkins yesterday, representatives of the newly formed Scientists and Engineers for America encouraged students and faculty to assume a more active role in politics. The 6,000-member group, which includes 14 Nobel laureates, is trying to affect close races in eight states by encouraging science-minded people to vote.
Mike Brown, the group's executive director, said Bush's policy on embryonic stem cell research was based on political ideology instead of sound science.
"Steele supports the president's restrictions on stem cell research," Brown said. "The distinction between Steele and Cardin is clear."
Peter C. Agre, who won the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry, paraphrased Dante, telling the crowd of about 150 that "the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a moral crisis fail to act."
Susan Wood, a former assistant commissioner at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, resigned from the FDA in September in protest over restrictions on over-the-counter sales of emergency contraceptive pills. She said the policy was based more on ideology than scientific evidence:
"If science is overruled by an ideology and a point of view, we ultimately end up with bad decisions that affect all of our lives."
Brown said the pro-science group was formed in mid-September and is really aimed at the 2008 presidential election. "We're probably too late to have a great impact on the midterm elections," he said.
The stem cell discussion, which Cardin will attempt to keep going with an appearance in Baltimore this morning with researcher Curt Civin, follows a weekend in which he was the keynote speaker at an event sponsored by NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland.
"The government should not interfere with a woman's right of choice," Cardin said at the event, according to comments circulated by his campaign. "Decisions relating to reproductive rights must be made by the woman, in accordance with her family, her faith and her doctor."
Heye said yesterday that Steele, a Roman Catholic, opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother. The National Right to Life Committee is spending more than $73,000 to support his Senate candidacy, according to Federal Election Commission data.
James G. Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park, said Cardin "is wasting his time" by focusing on abortion and stem cells.
"The people for whom stem cell research or abortion rights is a single issue, the thing that's going to decide how they vote, Cardin's already got their votes," he said.
"They know Cardin's position already, and they know Steele's position already."