POLITICS : Capital Punishment Held Up as Life or Death Campaign Issue : In races from Florida to California, political rhetoric focuses on executions as a gauge of toughness.


Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles supports capital punishment. In his 3 1/2 years in office the veteran Democrat has presided over eight executions. But now, in his bid for reelection, he is under attack from likely Republican challenger Jeb Bush for not enforcing the death penalty aggressively enough.

The assault by Bush, a son of former President George Bush, constitutes an early start on what has become a grisly rite of fall: the executioner’s song as a central theme in political campaigns. At a time when concern about crime is high and faith in the criminal justice system is low, the death penalty once again is emerging as a critical, even dominant, issue in several high-profile campaigns--particularly gubernatorial elections in some of the largest states.

Although even the states most committed to capital punishment execute only a handful of prisoners annually, political consultants say that support for the death penalty has become virtually a threshold question for voters assessing candidates’ attitudes toward crime.

“Voters understand the death penalty isn’t the end-all or be-all, but it says to them: ‘We know where a candidate stands, whose side he is " said Democratic media consultant Joe Trippi. “Are you on the side of the victims or, for lack of a better way of putting it: ‘Are you an ACLU liberal on the side of the criminals?’ ”


That widespread attitude threatens candidates opposed to capital punishment--even those who promise to enforce it despite their personal feelings, such as Democratic gubernatorial nominees Kathleen Brown in California and Dawn Clark Netsch in Illinois. And it is increasing pressure for reinstatement of capital punishment in some of the 13 states still without it: Kansas earlier this year became the first state since 1982 to reimpose the death penalty, and Massachusetts came close to following.

Though capital punishment typically has been a secondary issue in congressional races, it is roiling some contests this year--particularly in elections involving supporters of the House crime bill, which in an earlier form would have allowed prisoners facing death to challenge their sentences as racially biased. The “racial justice” provision was dropped in the House-Senate conference committee that resolved differences in the two chambers’ bills.

But earlier votes for the measure may come back to haunt some Democrats. In one of the two Tennessee Senate races, Republican Fred Dalton Thompson has already criticized his opponent, Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, for supporting (and then reversing his position on) the racial justice provision. In Kentucky, Republican challenger Ed Whitfield is saying that Democratic Rep. Tom Barlow’s support for the measure amounted “to trying to abolish the death penalty.”

“The mutant child of racial quotas and the death penalty makes that a potent issue,” said GOP consultant Mike Murphy.


For all the fervor the death penalty inspires, its practical effect is extremely limited. In 1993, the federal government and the states carried out 38 executions--and that was the most since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Even governors like Republicans Jim Edgar in Illinois and Pete Wilson in California, who are stressing the issue in their reelection campaigns, have presided over just two executions each.

The length of appeals in capital cases largely explains the infrequency of executions. But not that many criminals are sentenced to death in the first place. Throughout the United States, fewer than 3,000 convicts are on Death Row. From 1990 through 1992 alone, nearly 72,000 murders were committed.

Even so, public support for capital punishment remains unshakable: About three-fourths of Americans say they back the death penalty for murderers, among the highest level of support ever recorded, according to surveys by the Gallup Organization Inc. When the alternative of life without parole is proposed, three-fifths of those say they still prefer the death penalty, Gallup has found.

At the core of support for capital punishment, surveys show, is less the belief that it deters crime than the conviction that it is just punishment for the most vicious criminals. Voters “regard the death penalty as justice,” Wilson said flatly in an interview earlier this summer.


As a political issue, the death penalty appeared to crest four years ago when the largest states last elected governors. In Texas that year, gubernatorial candidates in both parties so emphasized their eagerness to carry out the death penalty that, someone quipped, voters should eliminate the middleman and just elect the executioner.

This year, Texas Gov. Ann Richards and Republican challenger George W. Bush--another son of the former President--both support capital punishment. But in other big-state gubernatorial elections, death is back at center stage.

In California, Wilson has used Brown’s personal opposition to capital punishment to brand her an “ACLU liberal” and link her to unpopular former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, who also promised to enforce the law but repeatedly invalidated death sentences on technical grounds.

In Illinois, Edgar barraged Netsch in June with $700,000 worth of television ads highlighting her lifelong opposition to the death penalty to portray her as soft on crime.


In New York, state Sen. George E. Pataki, the front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, opened his campaign with ads attacking Gov. Mario M. Cuomo for vetoing legislation to reinstate the death penalty during each of his 12 years in office. And in Florida, Jeb Bush began his campaign with ads promising that he would speed up enforcement of the death penalty--and sign more death warrants than Chiles.

So far, Edgar’s attacks appear to have had the most impact. That’s partly because of the backdrop: In May, after 14 years of appeals, the state executed mass murderer John Wayne Gacy. It was an emotional event that focused enormous attention on the death penalty.

“In focus groups, people said: ‘Jesus Christ, this guy got 14 years to appeal--that’s longer than some of his victims were alive,” said Andy Foster, Edgar’s campaign manager.

Netsch is trying to bolster her crime-fighting credentials by urging stricter gun control and criticizing Edgar for failing in his effort to pass a state ban on assault weapons. But at the time Edgar’s ads on the death penalty started running, he led Netsch by 6 percentage points in private polls; when they finished, his lead had swelled to 29 points, according to Fred Steeper, Edgar’s pollster.


In New York, the issue’s effect is less certain. Cuomo stirred controversy this summer when he suggested that state voters be given the opportunity to choose between the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole (his preferred alternative) in a binding referendum.

When the New York Times reported that represented a softening of his longstanding opposition to capital punishment, Cuomo angrily responded with evidence that he had been calling for such a referendum throughout his political career. But the imbroglio has added to Cuomo’s problems in his toughest political challenge since his first election in 1982.

In California, Brown is battling to prevent the death penalty issue from consuming a campaign that she wants to fight primarily on economic grounds. She has responded to Wilson’s attacks by firmly promising to carry out the death penalty. At the same time, she has fiercely counterattacked on Wilson’s crime record, accusing him of mismanaging the parole system and reducing the number of police officers in the state by cutting aid to cities.

“What Wilson is trying to do is make crime an ideological issue. . . .” said John Whitehurst, Brown’s spokesman. “What we’re trying to do is say crime is an effectiveness issue: Do you feel safer than you did four years ago?”


In Florida, both sides are preparing for a brawl on the issue if Jeb Bush survives next month’s GOP primary to become Chiles’ challenger. Bush has highlighted statistics showing that Chiles signed far fewer death warrants than his Democratic and Republican predecessors. Chiles aides said those figures are misleading because other governors signed death warrants before prisoners had completed all of their appeals, forcing courts to issue stays of execution.

In the sort of macabre competition now common, Chiles is saying that the relevant measure of his commitment to the death penalty is the eight executions that have occurred on his watch--just one less than occurred under his Republican predecessor, Bob Martinez.

Frank Greer, a political consultant to Chiles, maintained that Jeb Bush is courting a backlash by suggesting to voters that he would execute convicted murderers more quickly. In focus groups around the state, he said, people said that “they were sick of candidates using it as a political issue. . . .”

Still, Greer acknowledged, that’s scant comfort for candidates who can’t claim personal support for capital punishment. “You can still demonstrate toughness and an effective approach if you oppose the death penalty,” Greer insisted. “But it’s tough.”