When it comes to divisive social issues like abortion or gay marriage, presidential candidates usually try to say as little as possible for fear of offending voters.
But this year, both Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama are trying a different tack: reaching out to voters on both sides of key issues.
For McCain, the tricky issue is embryonic-stem-cell research. The anti-abortion McCain has broken with President Bush and the rest of the right-to-life movement on this issue, voting twice to expand federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research. Research on stem cells from other sources, like adults or umbilical cord blood, is not controversial.
In a radio ad touting his support for stem-cell research, McCain was careful not to specify what kind he was talking about. A voiceover said the research would "unlock the mystery of cancer, diabetes" and more.
A statement on McCain's Web site says, "Clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress." That's pretty much President Bush's position. And it has left backers of embryonic-stem-cell research — such as Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado — wondering what McCain actually supports.
McCain voted to expand funding for embryonic-stem-cell research in 2006 and 2007, "but in his campaign he's really been parsing his words. ... He was sort of trying to play it both ways a little bit," DeGette said.
In an e-mail to NPR, McCain domestic policy adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin confirmed that, yes, McCain still supports embryonic-stem-cell research and that as president he would sign the bill he voted for as a senator.
Meanwhile, Obama has been playing to both sides on another touchy issue: abortion.
Obama hasn't hidden the fact that he is strongly in favor of the right to an abortion. But he's made repeated entreaties to evangelicals and others who are opposed.
"There surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, 'We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies,' " Obama said during the final debate on Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, says Obama's history on the issue has never been one of trying to seek that middle ground.
"Even on abortion-related issues where many pro-abortion-rights lawmakers did come over to the pro-life side, like the partial-birth abortion legislation, where we ended up having two-thirds of the Congress in support of the ban, Obama has never wavered in his opposition," Johnson says.
Does Strategy Work?
The playing to both sides raises the question of whether candidates can really get away with such an approach on touchy issues.
"I think, in part, they do," says John Green, a University of Akron political science professor who specializes in the politics of religion. He says such techniques tend to work mainly with voters who don't make divisive social issues their top voting priority.
"So, say someone's a committed Catholic and [is] pro-life on abortion but very worried about the economy," Green says. "One way to deal with their concerns about abortion is to hear a more moderate position from a Democratic candidate, to hear something they can at least to some extent agree with."
The danger, of course, is that the candidates run the risk of angering those for whom these issues are the top priority. Green says the balancing act often spells the difference between winning and losing.