Bush Hits The Pause Button

By granting a reprieve to a convicted murderer, Bush highlights the first part of compassionate conservative. Will voters be impressed?

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The issue of fairness in the death penalty in Texas--and under Bush--is particularly relevant because of the sheer number of people who have been executed on his watch. (Vice President Al Gore also favors the death penalty, but he has the advantage at the moment of not having to manage a death row.) The nation's largest state, California, has had eight executions since 1976. In the nation's second largest state, Bush has six scheduled this month alone. And even among Texas Governors Bush stands out: during the four years Ann Richards, Bush's predecessor, was Governor, 51 Texans were executed--about half of Bush's just-under-two-a-month pace. While Texas' notoriously weak governorship puts certain constraints on Bush (he lacks, for instance, the power for a sweeping moratorium), he's got some discretion when it comes to the death penalty: he can stay executions, and most important, he appoints Texas' powerful 18-member parole commission. All the current members owe their jobs to him. Until this week, Bush showed no inclination to temper his state's death-sentencing culture. He has scuttled a bill that would have spared the mentally challenged and vetoed one that would have provided better lawyers for indigent defendants. His justice department's website lists prisoners killed as well as their last meals.

"What Bush has to do is appear reasonable and not bloodthirsty," says a Bush adviser. "That puts him just where most Americans are. And that's what he did this week." But the race is likely to be decided in a bloc of the Great Lakes states where the death penalty is not a major civic tradition. Michigan, for instance, has no death penalty, and the state's Republican Governor, John Engler, opposes capital punishment. So does Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. There's been one execution in Ohio since 1976, three in Pennsylvania. "The hang-'em-high culture of Texas doesn't play in the Midwest," says pollster Geoff Garin. And among Roman Catholics, considered a swing group, support for capital punishment is lower than among other groups, at least in part because of the church's aggressive stance against it.

This month Bush will face another questionable case, and it could be a tougher call for the Governor. That's because, like the vast majority of criminal cases, it does not involve DNA evidence. Convicted murderer Gary Graham is scheduled to be executed, largely on the basis of a sole eyewitness in a case where there was no physical evidence tying Graham to the crime. Does Bush let the man die on such slim proof? Bush may be able to grant a stay, but when it comes to the shifting politics of the death penalty, there's no reprieve. --With reporting by Hilary Hylton/Austin, Mitch Frank/New York and James Carney/Washington

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