Campaign 2000 will turn on many themes, one of which may well be capital punishment--but if that theme does emerge, it will be in an interesting new form.

This complex issue has both religious and political dimensions. The Democrats traditionally were opposed to capital punishment, and the Republicans traditionally favored it. There was a shift in the common wisdom, however, in 1992. The Democrats, having not possessed the White House for 12 years, decided that their best chance for victory was to make an obvious tilt toward the center. The issue chosen on which to make this shift obvious was capital punishment. Then-Gov. Bill Clinton broke off his presidential campaign to preside over the Arkansas execution of a convicted murderer. His message was: This is no longer the party of George McGovern.

So with little difference between the parties on this issue, it faded.

That was the situation as Campaign 2000 began. Vice President Al Gore, following President Clinton's lead, announced his support of capital punishment. Gov. George W. Bush had made his support of capital punishment a major plank in his two successful campaigns for the governorship of Texas. Capital punishment appeared thus to be a non-issue.

But one never knows what a campaign will bring forth during an election, or in what form even old issues will be framed, particularly when legions of people search the public records for a way to cast their opponent in a negative light.

So it was that Democrats looking at the number of public executions carried out in Texas--a figure significantly higher than any other state--began to suggest that it's one thing to be in favor of capital punishment and quite another to be gung ho for mass killings. Early in 1998, a woman named Karla Faye Tucker, who had committed two horrific murders in Houston in 1983 and subsequently been sentenced to die, was scheduled for execution in Texas. But in the ensuing 15 years, Tucker had blossomed in prison into a pretty born-again Christian who eventually married a prison chaplain. The leaders of the religious right, seduced by her born-again designation, appealed to Gov. Bush to commute her sentence. He declined. She was put to death.

A slight chink in the alliance between the religious right and the Republican candidate appeared, but it was too early in the campaign to make it seem critical. So it was simply filed away.

The thing that made that particular execution linger in the public memory was that this person broke the stereotype people have in their minds of those who populate death row. This was no Willie Horton, the issue George Bush had in 1988 ridden so successfully in his White House campaign against Michael Dukakis. This death row inmate was white, not black. She was female, not male. She was a born again Christian.

But she died, and the world settled back to try to forget that her death was troubling. The issue, however, would not go away.

In January, as the campaign was heating up in New Hampshire, this issue reappeared. First, George Ryan, a conservative Republican governor in Illinois, despite his publicly stated support of the death penalty, ordered a moratorium on all executions until a statewide investigation of all capital cases could be completed. He was responding to DNA studies revealing that 13 people in the state had been unjustly sentenced to death since 1977.

Next, stories began to circulate in the media questioning the adequacy of court-appointed lawyers in capital cases--particularly in Texas. Some of these attorneys, it was said, even had to be awakened when the time came for them to cross-examine a witness. Transcripts of trials were studied by experienced criminal lawyers documenting the absence of a competent legal defense in many cases that resulted in the sentence of capital punishment.

Surprisingly, conservative voices joined the debate on the liberal side. Republican columnist George Will admitted to a certain skepticism in capital cases. Evangelist Pat Robertson, having been unable to save Karla Faye Tucker, supported the idea of a moratorium. Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon co-sponsored a bill with Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont to guarantee competent lawyers and DNA testing to death row inmates.

Culturally, the emphasis in the debate had shifted from retribution and deterrence to the human concerns that justice was being compromised. Studies documented that racism and poverty are underlying factors in public executions. People of color are executed in proportions far greater than their percentage in the population at large, and execution is hardly ever carried out against a person of means.

Slowly, a compelling argument developed in conservative circles for a moratorium and the rethinking of capital punishment. As the issue grew, Mr. Gore found himself positively positioned as a moderate conservative, while Mr. Bush's image began to be that of one a bit too eager to execute and a bit too uncaring to see the bigger picture. The issue had clearly been nuanced.

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