DELIRIOUSLY applauded in New York during the Republican convention in August, Arnold Schwarzenegger may now be marginalized in his party because he supports stem cell research.
If this is evidence of a post-election GOP orthodoxy, it could have a chilling effect on discussion of an important issue. And the implications will reach far beyond California. Republican leaders in other states can hardly escape the pressure.
Where, for example, will Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. line up on this issue His response will have immediate economic implications in Maryland.
This state needs economic development and jobs, not to speak of improved quality of life. Stem cell research could bring all three. Maryland has much talent and many research capabilities, but those assets could begin to move west if research is foreclosed here by policy or lack of money. Californians voted to give $3 billion to provide for stem cell research.
Companies that might locate in the two biotech parks planned for Baltimore might not come if they face restrictions on this research.
Some Marylanders will view the money aspects of all this with suspicion.
The Rev. Jason Poling, pastor of New Hope Community Church in Owings Mills, wants to put the brakes on.
"I think it's extremely questionable ethically to use a human being to serve as a factory for cells to be implanted in another human being. There are far less problematic things that can be examined," he said recently.
On the other side of the discussion, Baltimore Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Democrat, hopes many concerns can be put to rest by a dispassionate examination of the science - and the stakes. "The potential benefit to living and ill human beings," he says, "far outweighs the harm done to an embryonic cell."
It's not as if stem research is not already under way in Maryland, though it's limited by lack of money. Dr. Curt I. Civin, a cancer and stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, says his work holds great promise: "We'll learn how all embryology happens ... how a part of the heart doesn't develop, for example, and then being able to come in with a drug and prevent that."
But for some the price of this knowledge may be too high.
A bill sponsored by Mr. Rosenberg that sought to clarify what could and could not be done by stem cell researchers was called "diabolical" by a critic in The Catholic Review.
Those who oppose the research on religious or moral grounds may now think that compromise, even if possible for them on principle, is not required.
But a discussion is possible.
A small group of conservative thinkers in Frederick County, for example, supported Mr. Bush in almost every other way but wanted relaxation of his decision to limit this research.
Some of them observed that the Reagan family supports this research. Like the men in Frederick, members of the late president's family saw the onslaught of Alzheimer's disease. Mr. Rosenberg says he's been told that some of his Republican colleagues would support his bill.
The Republican congressman from Western Maryland, Roscoe G. Bartlett, wonders if research might be conducted without injury to the embryonic cells. And Pastor Poling suggested further research with cells taken from umbilical cords, for example.
Which brings the discussion back to Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Schwarzenegger. Will Maryland's governor allow his Republican brother in California to take all the research action? Of course, ethical and religious questions may lead some to insist that there's nothing to discuss.
Before the election, Mr. Bush came down squarely on both sides of the issue. He allowed government-financed research to proceed on a limited number of stem cell lines while banning any expansion beyond that. But scientists say it's difficult to separate federal from state or private money, so Mr. Bush stands closer to the no-research side of the spectrum.
Given what he calls a mandate at the polls, he may choose to stand pat. California may be left to harbor the "diabolical" work and to pay the bill. Opponents can call it one more bit of bicoastal blue heresy. Mr. Schwarzenegger's position may have something to do with the politics of California, but he and Californians have chosen to explore, to venture toward a new frontier.
Americans will be waiting on both sides of the red-blue dividing line.
C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.