- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

Liberals are trying to make capital punishment a campaign issue against Texas Gov. George W. Bush, but Vice President Al Gore appears loath to join the attack for fear of appearing soft on crime.

In recent days, a flurry of studies by journalists and academics has pointed out that many death sentences are overturned because of errors by police, prosecutors and defense lawyers.

The authors invariably focus on Texas as the state that executes the most convicts, prompting criticism that Mr. Bush is not sufficiently sensitive to the plight of prisoners.

But with two-thirds of Americans supporting the death penalty, the issue could backfire by actually increasing support for Mr. Bush. Although the studies expose flaws in the legal system, they fail to cite any case in which the Texas governor has presided over the death of an innocent person.

"Fairly put, there are reporters and death penalty researchers all over the state of Texas right now looking for that case," said Democratic strategist Scott Segal. "You've got to personalize it.

"I don't think that much ground will be gained by sort of generically attacking the institution of the death penalty," he added. "Democrats will gain ground by pointing out specific instances."

Unless and until such a case can be found in Texas, Mr. Gore is staying on the sidelines of the capital punishment debate. While Democrats and even some Republicans on Capitol Hill are renewing calls for a national moratorium on executions, Mr. Gore said late Monday he opposes such a move on the federal level.

"I do not think in the federal courts that the evidence justifies a moratorium," the vice president said.

The closest Mr. Gore came to criticizing Mr. Bush was to say he would support a moratorium in any state where DNA testing reveals the kinds of problems recently exposed in Illinois, where 13 death-row inmates have been cleared by such tests. Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, has halted all executions pending further study.

Mr. Gore emphasized that he supports DNA testing where it can improve the administration of justice.

But so does Mr. Bush, who earlier this month granted a 30-day reprieve to a man sentenced to death for raping and murdering his 13-year-old stepdaughter. Mr. Bush halted the execution of Ricky Nolen McGinn while DNA tests clarify uncertainties about the rape aspect of the case.

Ironically, political observers saw the decision as reinforcing the Texas governor's image as a "compassionate conservative" without compromising his tough-on-crime credentials. During his 5 and 1/2 years in office, Mr. Bush has presided over more than 130 executions, more than any other sitting governor.

In fact, the trend toward delaying or halting executions is being led by pro-death penalty Republicans like Mr. Bush and Mr. Ryan, who appear immune to accusations of coddling criminals.

By contrast, Democrats have long been painted by Republicans as soft on crime and therefore feel compelled to proceed more cautiously.

Democrats are particularly wary of repeating the mistake of Michael Dukakis, the last presidential nominee to oppose capital punishment.

During a 1988 campaign debate with Mr. Bush's father, Vice President George Bush, Mr. Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor, was asked by CNN's Bernard Shaw whether he would favor the death penalty if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered.

Rather than expressing outrage at the very mention of such a brutal crime, Mr. Dukakis gave a detached, emotionless defense of his opposition to capital punishment. The answer was viewed as so damaging to Mr. Dukakis' campaign that no Democratic presidential nominee since then has opposed the death penalty.

In 1992, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton flew home from the campaign trail to oversee the execution of a brain-damaged black man. Liberals and conservatives alike accused Mr. Clinton of ramming through the death of Ricky Ray Rector in order to inoculate himself against charges of being soft on crime.

"Clinton had come to support the death penalty after opposing it early in his career," former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos wrote in his memoir, "All Too Human." "Had Clinton broke precedent and spared Rector, I would have been proud, but the devil on my shoulder would have whispered that we were handing the Republicans a huge issue."

GOP strategist Ed Rollins said "the death penalty was historically the defining wedge issue for us," because prominent Democrats like former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo could never bring themselves to embrace it.

He added: "Of late, a bunch of them have jumped on board Clinton being the first arguing that they're for the death penalty."

Public support for the death penalty peaked at 80 percent in 1994 and has since dropped to 66 percent as crime rates have fallen. Still, the push to make it a campaign issue against Mr. Bush remains politically risky.

"It could easily backfire," Mr. Rollins said. "The more that people talk about it, the more it benefits Bush. The liberals aren't going to vote for him anyway, but people that are strong on law and order clearly will be supportive of him."

Mr. Segal said it depends on how Mr. Bush comports himself in the death penalty debate.

"People are trying to use the fact that Texas is No. 1 in executions as somehow an indictment of Governor Bush," he said. "But if Governor Bush stresses the sanctity of the decision he has to make, the toughness of the decision he has to make, then I think the American public is sympathetic and even supportive of use of the death penalty.

"If Governor Bush is perceived as being cavalier about the role he plays in the judicial system, then I think he will do himself a disservice," Mr. Segal added, "because I think the American public is conflicted about the death penalty."

The sudden interest in capital punishment as a campaign issue puts the candidates into something of a role reversal.

While Mr. Gore often is portrayed as having more hands-on experience than Mr. Bush in matters such as foreign policy, he has never held a convict's life in his hands.

Even a staunch death-penalty opponent like Mr. Stephanopoulos argued that Mr. Clinton's life-or-death power over Rector gave the candidate gravitas.

"Clinton's stoicism comforted me," Mr. Stephanopoulos wrote. "Wielding ultimate power made him sad, the appropriate sensibility, I thought, for a statesman sanctioning death."

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