After criticizing Mitt Romney’s abortion flip-flop last week, John McCain has struck again.  A blog entry at the New York Times discusses the McCain campaign’s latest allegations that Mitt Romney flip-flopped on the hot-button issue of public funding for embryonic stem cell research.

On abortion, Romney has clearly switched his position — it’s up to the individual voter to decide if he flip-flopped or if he changed his mind for non-political reasons.  But do these stem cell charges hold water?

The McCain campaign’s charge relies on this video of a March 2005 press conference:

Then-Governor Romney repeatedly states that he supports stem cell research within “ethical boundaries” and that (in Massachusetts at least) it should be researched as part of a broader approach:

ROMNEY: I’m looking forward to seeing what bill comes forward, I believe that stem cell research is important for our state and for our nation, and I also believe that there should be ethical lines drawn around the appropriate research, but stem cell research is important, and I’ll support it, and I’m gonna continue to encourage ethical lines to be drawn in a way that respects human life.

Asked whether both public and private funding should go to stem cell research, Romney responded with a focus on economics rather than the usual social politics:

ROMNEY: Well it’s a very important topic – which is how you use taxpayer money to fund various forms of research, ultimately you’re looking for ways to stimulate our economy.  I have put forward a very broad-based economic stimulus proposal and a jobs proposal.  It’s several hundred million dollars – almost seven hundred million dollars – and included within it is a source of capital that could go for research, and stem cell research among others could be included.  I recognize that our economy is based on a broad array of industries.  Those that are working in biotech in our state represent about 1% of our state workforce, those working in stem cells are about 1% of them, so I’d want to make sure that our funding for research is broad enough to encompass a wide array of areas that are important for long-term employment in Massachusetts, including stem cell research.

REPORTER: So you do support public funding?

ROMNEY: We do have – as I say time and again, I am very much in favor of pursuing stem cell research.  I do think there should be ethical bounds drawn, but if the ethical boundaries are appropriately drawn and money is spent within those boundaries, that’s something that I think is appropriate and should be part of the overall economic stimulus package which we and the legislature will work out together.

 The New York Times Caucus blog reports that the McCain campaign claimed this clip finds Romney’s answers at odds with his present political stance, summarized as follows:

Mr. Romney, who is seeking to position himself as the true conservative among the leading Republican presidential contenders, opposes expanded federally-financed research on embryonic stem cells. And in an interview last week, Peter Flaherty, Mr. Romney’s deputy campaign manager, said it is a stance Mr. Romney has held since he was governor.

“From the moment we sat down as an administration to formulate a policy on stem cell research, the governor has never been a proponent of expanded federal funding or state funding for embryonic stem cell research,” he said.

As the video clip never explicitly names embryonic stem cells as the type of research in question, the video does not demonstrate any flip-flop whatsoever.  To the contrary, Romney’s measured endorsement of stem cell research so long as appropriate ethical bounds are drawn is identical to his position today.

Lame and unrevealing as the video may be, the McCain campaign might simply have been aiming to increase public scrutiny of Romney’s stem cell record.  Before the clip was shot in March 2005, Romney’s views on stem cells had changed extensively.  The Times reports:

Mr. Romney expressed broad support for embryonic stem cell research when he was campaigning for governor but would later veto a Massachusetts measure that included a provision that would allow cloning of human embryos for experimentation, saying that crossed a moral boundary. But he spoke favorably about research done on frozen embryos from fertility clinics that would otherwise be discarded.

A spokesman in August 2004 said he ‘’he supports stem cell research on new and existing lines, in both private and federally funded settings.’’ Less than a year later, Mr. Romney also praised a federal stem cell measure that had just been passed by the House of Representatives.

‘’The United States House of Representatives voted for a bill that was identical to what I proposed,’’ Mr. Romney said. ‘’They voted to provide for surplus embryos from in vitro fertilization processes being used for research and experimentation. That’s what I said I support.’’

The bill would have expanded federal financing of stem cell research on embryos from fertility clinics. President Bush eventually vetoed the measure and has vowed to reject a similar measure that the Democratic-led Congress recently passed. Mr. Romney now says he would veto the most recent measure as well, arguing government money should not be used for the research because of the ethical questions.

Instead, he says, the money should be used for alternative methods that do not entail the destruction of embryos.

Because of the tangled and complex nature of this issue, it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact flip-flop.  But there may well be something fishy about Romney first approving of the earlier House bill as “identical to what I proposed” and now asserting that he would veto similar legislation today because of ethical questions.

With issues this complex, the rhetoric is bound to be slippery.  And certainly most politicians don’t go out of their way to publically take specific stances on hot-button issues.  But unless recent research suggesting that embryonic stem cells can be manufactured pans out quick, Romney and the rest of the candidates are going to have to answer plenty of questions on this soon.