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At this early date, several fault lines seem likely to divide the 2004 Democratic presidential field. The first is experience: Al Gore (assuming he runs) will insist that after September 11 it's essential; John Edwards will remind voters that Gore has experience losing. The second is geography: Richard Gephardt (or TomDaschle or both) will focus on Iowa; John Kerry will rely on New Hampshire; Edwards will concentrate on the South. The third is style: Joe Lieberman is solemn; Edwards is folksy; Kerry is aggressive; Gore is anyone's guess.

Where the candidates aren't sharply divided--at least so far--is on the issues. Each falls within the fairly narrow post-Clinton consensus: fiscally conservative, socially liberal, politically timid. Once upon a time, Lieberman--who flirted with vouchers and Social Security privatization and opposed affirmative action--would have been the obvious candidate to break out of that consensus, to the right.

But since his vice presidential selection, Lieberman has made peace with the teachers' unions and civil rights groups that wield so much power in Democratic primaries--and as a result, on domestic policy he now sounds like everyone else. There's still a chance that Lieberman, or even Gore, could go to the right of the field on foreign policy--by aggressively backing a war on Iraq. But on domestic affairs, the open space is on the left. And in that vein, I have a modest, and modestly heretical, proposal: It may be time for a national Democrat to take on the death penalty.

During the Clinton years national Democrats banished capital punishment from their agenda. The party's metamorphosis on the issue was encapsulated in two singular moments: Michael Dukakis's emotionless answer to Bernard Shaw's question about whether he'd want the death penalty if his wife Kitty were raped and murdered; and Bill Clinton's decision to fly home to Arkansas in January 1992 to execute mentally retarded murderer Ricky Ray Rector.

Many Democratic strategists think Clinton's grotesque move helped him win the White House. And since then, virtually every prominent Democrat has either reversed his previous opposition to the death penalty or gone silent on the topic. In 2000 Gore said he considered capital punishment a deterrent. Gephardt, Daschle, Lieberman, and Edwards support it as well. Kerry remains generally opposed; but when asked about his position a couple of weeks ago in South Carolina, he was so afraid of appearing anti-death that he noted, in a morbid non sequitur, "I killed people in Vietnam."

But while Beltway Democrats remain terrified of the issue, in the states there is mounting evidence that the politics of capital punishment are changing. The biggest reason is America's decade-long decline in crime, which on issue after issue--from gun control to mandatory sentencing--has tipped public opinion away from the early 1990s obsession with law and order toward a greater concern for civil liberties and individual rights. According to ABC News, support for capital punishment, which stood at 77 percent in 1996, fell to 65 percent this month.

More importantly, the death penalty debate has shifted from outright abolition--which remains unpopular--to a moratorium; from whether government has the right to kill to whether it is doing so competently and fairly. And that shift--like the shift on abortion from outright abolition to prohibitions on the partial-birth procedure--has leveled the political playing field. In an ABC/Washington Post poll last year, a death penalty moratorium garnered a majority of public support.

And that support has expressed itself particularly strongly in the states where moratoriums have actually been proposed. In January 2000 Republican George Ryan became the first governor to halt executions, after a study found that Illinois had exonerated more death-row inmates than it had executed. Polls at the time showed that 70 percent of state residents approved of his decision (and 64 percent still support the moratorium today).

Since then, the idea has picked up steam--a moratorium passed the Nebraska legislature and failed in New Mexico's by a mere two votes. (In 2000 the New Hampshire legislature passed an outright ban--only to see it vetoed by its Democratic governor.) Nine states are currently conducting studies of their capital punishment systems, studies that will likely generate momentum for a halt to executions. And last week Maryland became the second state to impose a moratorium. According to public opinion polls there, almost half of state residents approve.

For a Democratic presidential hopeful, endorsing a moratorium would be risky. But it might pay off. In the 2004 primaries, the African American vote looks up for grabs (though Gore has the early edge). And given the obvious racial disparities in the death penalty's application, a Democrat who made it an issue could make real inroads among the party base.

There's also reason to believe a moratorium has appeal beyond liberals and therefore wouldn't necessarily prove crippling in a general election. As crime has receded over the last decade, the right's libertarian instincts have come to the fore. By focusing on the incompetent and unjust way the death penalty is administered, moratorium supporters have tapped into conservative distrust of government--which may explain why the issue has attracted considerable support in New Hampshire and New Mexico, two of the most libertarian states in the union. As George Will noted in a column two years ago, "Capital punishment, like the rest of the criminal justice system, is a government program, so skepticism is in order."

And the movement is making inroads among social conservatives as well. The Bush administration frequently employs the Catholic Church's "seamless garment of life" rhetoric to justify its opposition to abortion and stem-cell research; in his May 2001 speech at Notre Dame, the president vowed to "protect life in all its stages." But for the Catholic Church, protecting life includes opposing the death penalty--and Pope John Paul II has been particularly vocal on the issue. In Maryland one of the key lobbies for a moratorium was the state's Catholic Conference.

Death penalty supporters point to polls showing that, as a whole, Catholics are just as pro-death penalty as are other Americans. But the Bush administration isn't focused on Catholics as a whole; they're focused on what White House strategists call "active Catholics"--those who go to Mass weekly and are more likely to follow Church teachings. The problem for the GOP is that if these Catholics follow Rome's lead on abortion and cloning, they probably follow it on capital punishment as well. And having developed "compassionate conservatism" in part to appeal to them, Bush is poorly situated to make capital punishment a centerpiece of his campaign.

None of this makes advocating a moratorium politically safe. But in this authenticity-starved age, speaking up bluntly for what you believe can bring its own rewards--witness McCain's surprise success in the 2000 GOP primaries. In his heart, I bet every Democratic presidential contender thinks America's death penalty system is a disgrace. The interesting candidate will be the one with the courage to say so.

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