Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Defection from anti-cloning ranks by Sen. Jim Talent, until now a rising star in the conservative movement, reflects deep divisions in the Republican Party created by the stem cell research issue.

When Talent went on the Senate floor Friday to take his name off a bill to ban human cloning, he showed how those divisions imperil his re-election to a second term in Missouri this year. Talent had been a longtime co-sponsor of Sen. Sam Brownback's anti-cloning bill. But Missouri business interests who finance the Republican Party are backing a state constitutional amendment that explicitly allows human cloning to enable scientific experiments on embryonic stem cells.

Talent succumbed to pressure to step away from Brownback, basing this on the premise that there are new scientific developments. His risk is that his social conservative constituency will regard this as a betrayal and in turn abandon Talent at the polls. Missouri has been a passionate battleground, beginning with the Civil War and more recently as a weathervane for national elections.

The stem cell struggle there reflects nationwide tension between the country club and religious conservatives that has been kept under control in the largely dormant abortion debate. But Democrats want to use stem cell research as a wedge issue in the way Republicans used gay marriage. Talent had a political choice between the country club and his old right-wing constituency, and he picked the country club. This column may have inadvertently hurried Talent's choice.

David Freddoso, my reporter, learned early last week that Talent was "considering" getting off the bill co-sponsored by Brownback and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. Talent's staff was unresponsive to our questions, talking vaguely about "changing science." When I tried to talk to the senator starting last Wednesday, he did not call me back until after his 30-minute Senate speech Friday abandoning the Brownback-Landrieu bill.

Talent was under political duress.

State Auditor Claire McCaskill, his formidable Democratic opponent for the Senate, on Jan. 24 opened fire on Talent for wanting to "criminalize" attempted research for "life-saving cures." With Talent a narrow loser for governor in 2000 and narrow winner for senator in 2002, current polls show him about even against McCaskill. Talent was not ready to respond Feb. 4 when he addressed a Missouri Republican conference in Kansas City and did not mention stem cells.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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