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Less Than Meets The Eye?

Capital punishment could have limited political traction in this year's presidential race.

The execution Thursday night of Texas death-row inmate Gary Graham has again put the political spotlight on Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"After considering all the facts, I am confident justice is being done," Bush said. "May God bless the victims, the families of the victims and may God bless Mr. Graham."

It was the 135th execution in Texas since Bush became governor, and 15 more are scheduled to take place in the Lone Stat State before the November election.

But despite concerns about botched death row cases nationwide, some political analysts doubt the death penalty itself will have much resonance come November. For one thing, most Americans continue to back it, warts and all.

"This is a very foolish issue for those oppose Bush to focus upon," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

Last summer, Bush looked worse than foolish on the issue - he seemed gleefully mean. That's when he mocked Karla Faye Tucker - the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War - in a Talk magazine interview.

It was not an image that sat well with Bush's own "compassionate conservative" label. But what's key for Candidate Bush now, some analysts agree, is how Governor Bush handles Texas executions from this point forward.

Bush's 30-day reprieve for one death row inmate two weeks ago seems more in tune with his own campaign mantra. The reprieve for Ricky McGinn - Bush's first reprieve since he became governor in 1995 - "puts him in a good light for those suburbanites who favor the death penalty, but are not particularly bloodthirsty," Sabato said.

Marshall Wittmann of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, predicts Bush will have no choice but to deal - again and again - with the spotlight shining on executions in the Lone Star State.

"Each execution will get tremendous attention and will force Bush to be very sensitive," he said.

David Bositis of the Joint Center For Political and Economic Studies, a liberal think tank, said the McGinn reprieve probably won't be the last from the governor's mansion in Austin this year.

Bush "realizes that he has to go back a step in terms of capital punishment. My suspicion is he's gonna do it even more," said Bositis.

Al Gore has steered clear of Texas' death penalty record. Gore favors congressional legislation that would provide DNA testing for federal and state death row inmates and that would set tougher standards for their court-appointed defense lawyers. But the vice president - who also supports the death penalty - does not endorse a moratorium on federal executions and he's keeping mum about Bush.

"He's not going to say anything," said Bositis, "unless George W. makes a mistake."

"It's a plus for Al Gore," he added. "It raises questions about George W. Bush and here he comes from. Gore doesn't have to say anything."

What about the black vote? African-Americans are certainly more attuned to the capital punishment issue, noted Sabato, since blacks convicted of major violent offenses are more likely than whites to land on death row. Does the vice president risk disappointing - and thus not turning out - a vital part of his voter base in a close race against Bush by saying too little? Sabato doesn't think so.

Gore's "party identification and his strong support from President Clinton" - who's popular among African-Americans - will help him turn out the black vote in the fall - and "will help overcome any problems that exist on this score," he said.