Following the deaths of Ronald Reagan (search) and Christopher Reeve (search), embryonic stem cell research with its potential to find cures for debilitating illnesses is giving John Kerry (search) and other Democrats an issue to pitch to moderate Republican voters.

In the Northwest, the campaign of Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray (search) is airing a television commercial that says Republican Rep. George Nethercutt (search), her opponent, "wants to hold back science" because of his past opposition to embryonic stem cell research.

"When so many are suffering from diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer's, how could George es and blatantly misstating the president's position — Kerry, for example, has referred to a Bush "ban" on stem cell research.

But Republicans themselves are divided on the issue. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) this week endorsed a $3 billion state bond measure that would fund human embryonic stem cell research. Former first lady Nancy Reagan, whose husband died after long suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and several Republican lawmakers have asked Bush to fund research on new embryonic stem cell lines.

Candidates who frame the issue as one of science and medicine could find a receptive audience among voters uncomfortable with religious-tinged efforts to place limits on scientific research, according to analysts.

"This is an issue which resonates with women, with moderates who see it as a health issue," said University of Southern California political science professor Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "George W. Bush's position on stem cell research is more about ethics and ideology."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, said stem cell research presents an interesting communications issue.

"You have the campaigns trying to position that issue in different domains. Democrats frame it as health care. Republicans link it to abortion," Jamieson said.

Embryonic stem cells are master cells that form in the days after fertilization and can turn into any tissue of the body. Many scientists hope to harness them one day to grow replacement tissue to treat spinal cord injuries as well as diabetes and other diseases.

Reeve, the actor who died last week, was a quadriplegic for the last nine years of his life after suffering a spinal injury in a horse-riding accident.

Kerry would relax limits that Bush imposed in 2001 when he announced he would approve federal funding of embryonic stem cell research for only the 78 stem cell lines in existence on Aug. 9, 2001. At last count, less than two dozen of those lines are still available.

Religious groups oppose the scientific work in which the culling of stem cells kills the embryos, equating that with abortion. They had urged Bush not to be the first president to fund the research — even with limits.

Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday said Bush weighed science and ethical concerns before making his decision. "We've just said that there are limits to kinds of activities you'll support with federal funds, because we do think there's an ethical question there. But there's no bar on what the private sector wants to do," Cheney said at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania.

Some Republican candidates have touted their opposition to spending government money on the research. Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning, facing Democratic surgeon Dan Mongiardo, said his opposition to the research is based on "moral" concerns about the destruction of human life.

In Florida, Senate candidate Mel Martinez attacked primary opponent Bill McCollum for his support of limited embryonic stem cell research, calling him antifamily.