The Texas governor says interest in the case of Gary Graham, who was executed Thursday, and the state's accelerated capital punishment is the result of the "emotionality" of the death penalty debate. He has shrugged off doubts about the fairness of the justice system, saying he knows of no innocent man or woman executed in the state.
Bush's handling of the furor over how the death penalty is meted out in Texas is a window into his personality, giving voters a preview of the way he might deal with the nation's weightiest public policy decisions if he wins the White House, political analysts say.
"Someday, he might have to push a button that doesn't just fry an individual but says, 'We are at war,'" said Marc Landy, chairman of Boston College's political science department. "The issue with Bush is not does he have the guts to do it, but is he a judicious, thoughtful, mature leader?"
Bush's body language, rhetoric, and demeanor in the highly controversial Graham case gives voters a glimpse of his personality and character, adds Benjamin Page of Northwestern University. Bush was criticized during the primary campaign for laughing during a televised debate when asked about one pending execution.
"It's the question of basic brainpower but also the question of basic humanity and depth of feeling," said Page, a political science professor. "This issue is a keyhole into his character."
During a three-day swing through Washington state and California this week, Bush was dogged by death penalty protesters but didn't flinch.
"I think it's important that they know that I'm going to make decisions based on the law and justice and fairness," he said aboard his campaign plane. "And stand my ground in the face of pretty significant movement to try to undermine the credibility of the death penalty in the state of Texas."
His state has put more people to death in the last two decades than any other. This year alone, Texas has executed 22 inmates; there have been 134 executions during Bush's five years in office.
Including Graham, 15 more are scheduled before Election Day on November 7--an average of almost one a week.
The governor said several times recently that he believes none of those put to death on his watch were executed in error.
But most Texans believe their state has put an innocent person to death, according to a media poll published on Thursday.
The Scripps Howard Texas Poll found that 57% believe someone has been executed by mistake. Also, 87% said death-row inmates should have access to free DNA tests to try to prove their innocence.
Despite such doubts, Texans continue to strongly support capital punishment, with 73% of those surveyed favoring the death penalty. A recent Gallup Poll showed that support nationally for capital punishment has fallen to 66%, its lowest level since 1981.
"I understand the emotionality of the death penalty," Bush said Wednesday. "I expect it."
He has signaled an open-mindedness to reforms, such as DNA testing that might clear death row inmates.
Earlier this month, Bush authorized a reprieve for inmate Ricky McGinn pending DNA tests.
Two years ago, Bush told the parole board to review the case of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas because of questions about the slaying for which Lucas was about to die. Lucas' death sentence eventually was commuted to life.
But it is Graham's case that has sparked the most protests and focused the issue on Bush this election year.
The governor appoints the parole board but is barred by law from halting the execution without a majority vote from the panel. The panel on Thursday voted not to stop Graham's execution.
The governor has the power to grant a one-time 30-day reprieve in death penalty cases. But not for Graham: He already received his one reprieve in 1993 from Bush's predecessor, Democrat Ann Richards.
Graham was 17 when Bobby Lambert, 53, was slain on May 13, 1981.
Graham pleaded guilty to 10 aggravated robberies during the crime spree but argued that the sole eyewitness at his trial was mistaken when she identified him as the gunman who shot Lambert.