September 24, 2008

Shaheen, Fox Stump for Cells


Steadying his twitching body against the podiums in front of him, actor and activist Michael J. Fox urged university crowds in Durham and Manchester yesterday to vote for Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen, saying that she'll support the embryonic stem cell research that could provide a cure for chronic ailments such as Parkinson's disease, which Fox has.

"The choice between Jeanne and her opponent could not be clearer," said Fox, the star of Family Ties and Back to the Future who has been a prominent advocate of stem cell research for years. "Jeanne wants to move medical science forward."

Shaheen, a Democrat, backs federal funding for expanded embryonic stem cell research, while her opponent, Republican Sen. John Sununu, has voted against it. Sununu, who has said he opposes the destruction of embryos, has backed adult stem cell research. Scientists have said embryonic research holds unique promise because the cells divide indefinitely and can become any kind of body tissue, though some hope that recent scientific breakthroughs will render the political and ethical debate moot.

Shaheen's daughter, Stefany, made a personal case in introducing her mother and Fox at the University of New Hampshire, telling the crowd about her 10-year-old daughter Elle's juvenile diabetes. Stefany Shaheen said that Sununu's vote could have been decisive in overriding President Bush's 2007 veto of an embryonic stem cell research bill.

"There is nothing more personal than having the man who stole the election from your mother in 2002 be the one vote you needed and the person standing in the way of a cure for your daughter's chronic disease," Stefany Shaheen said.

Stefany Shaheen was referencing questions some Democrats have about the phone-jamming operation run by Republican operatives to tie up Democratic get-out-the-vote phone lines in 2002, on the day that Sununu beat Shaheen to win the Senate seat. Sununu, who won that race by 20,000 votes, has never been implicated in the phone- jamming.

This time around, Shaheen has led Sununu in polls for more than a year, though recent polls show that the race has tightened. Yesterday, the latest poll, conducted by UNH for WMUR news, showed Shaheen in the lead, 48 to 44. The margin of error was 4.3 percent.

In a statement released by his campaign, Sununu noted his own scientific background touting his support for a variety of technologies that could serve as alternatives to embryonic stem cell research.

"As the only engineer in the U.S. Senate, I've been proud to protect funding for the National Science Foundation from political manipulation and fully support funding for adult and amniotic stem cell research, which has already resulted in a number of treatments that have proven to be successful in patient trials," Sununu said in a statement.

Fox countered the idea that emerging technologies have allowed the nation to sidestep the debate on stem cells. "Saying 'Let's avoid the controversy,' or 'Let's go with Curtain A because we're not quite sure what's behind Curtain B,' I think does the country a disservice," he told the Associated Press. "It's certainly a disservice to families and patients and people who could be affected by this research."

Fox spoke for about three to four minutes at both UNH and Southern New Hampshire University to crowds of a few hundred at each campus, grasping the podium as his shoulders shrugged up and down and his head weaved. Parkinson's is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system that impairs motor skills and speech. Jeanne Shaheen's husband, Bill, warned the Manchester crowd before Fox arrived that the actor would not be able to take questions.

"He's one of the most courageous individuals that I've ever met in my life," Bill Shaheen said. He added: "He will not be able to take questions today because he's really giving it his all."

This isn't Fox's first campaign trail foray. He campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 and worked for several Senate candidates in 2006, making commercials where he looked into the camera as his body swerved and talked about his support for embryonic stem cell research. That year, Rush Limbaugh accused Fox of "exaggerating" his symptoms.

Fox told the UNH crowd that he had returned to the campaign trail and "wiped the bloody nose off from last time," in the hopes of finishing "the job we started in 2006, and elect pro-stem-cell candidates."

In a year where economy, energy and the war have dominated most of the electoral debate, Shaheen has steadily worked to highlight her stance on stem cell research. Shaheen talked about stem cell research when she announced her run for Senate last September, and frequently mentions the debate in stump speeches. Over the summer, she gave a speech on science in which she underlined her stance on stem cell research and talked about her granddaughter's diabetes.

There are a couple of reasons why the issue may particularly favor for Shaheen this year. Polls show that most Americans back embryonic stem cell research, with Gallup putting the support at about 60 percent last year. Additionally, Shaheen has steadily favored embryonic stem cell research since before her 2002 run. On other issues of major distinction this year, such as the Iraq war authorization bill and the Bush tax cuts, back in 2002, Shaheen agreed with Sununu in favoring both.

While Fox was in New Hampshire yesterday, he waded into an ongoing debate about the stem cell issue in the presidential race.

Both Barack Obama, a Democrat, and John McCain, a Republican, have voted for federal support for embryonic stem cell research. But Obama's campaign has questioned McCain's position and is running a radio ad in swing states saying McCain "has stood in the way" of such research, according to the news site

The Obama campaign has pointed to the 2008 Republican Party platform, which calls for a ban on embryonic stem cell research. McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has also reportedly opposed such research.

Fox said yesterday that he was troubled by the Republican platform, but that he hasn't heard McCain change his position.

"Historically, Sen. McCain has been a friend to the cause and a supporter of stem cell research. He hasn't specifically reversed himself on that," he told the Associated Press. "Although, with Sen. Obama, there's no mystery about it. There's no veil over any part of his support. His support is total and enthusiastic."

Originally published by LAUREN R. DORGAN Monitor staff.

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