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A few days at the front

TEXAS GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: Even renewed controversy over the death penalty doesn't appear to derail the GOP presidential front-runner's campaign.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000


AUSTIN, Texas -- George W. Bush played the gracious host.

Outside the pink granite state Capitol and up the street at the Greek Revival Governor's Mansion, law enforcement officers paced the sidewalks in the summer heat. Television satellite trucks staked out positions nearby to await word from the state pardons board on convicted murderer Gary Graham's execution.

On the second floor of the Capitol, the Texas governor tried to treat Thursday morning as just another day at the office.

Bush showed visitors his collection of 250 autographed baseballs, a colorful portrait of Texas legend Sam Houston and a 50-year-old black-and-white photograph he keeps on the credenza behind his desk. The photo includes his late grandfather, Prescott Bush, who would become a senator; his father, George Bush, who would become president; their wives; and a little boy in cowboy boots who is campaigning now to be the next president.

That campaign and Bush's day job are colliding. The controversy over Graham's execution molded the two together.

"I welcome the debate, and I think its healthy for democracy," Bush said in an interview Thursday morning with the St. Petersburg Times and other newspapers from key election states. "People are showing up at rallies and that's fine, too. It's their right to come and express their opinion. But I'm going to uphold the law."

It turned out there wasn't much for him to uphold.

Several hours later, the state pardons board refused to recommend a reprieve for Graham, who was convicted for a 1981 Houston murder on the testimony from one eyewitness. Under Texas law, Bush could not halt the execution that was carried out at dusk after Graham's legal appeals failed.

Friday, Bush headed back out on the campaign trail, talking up his plans for Social Security to voters in Alabama before retiring to his Texas ranch for the weekend.

Even renewed controversy over the death penalty does not appear to have knocked a Bush campaign off-stride that has gained momentum since the early primary elections.

The Texas governor has raised a record $90-million. His proposals for Social Security, education and defense have dominated the campaign debate. And a new bipartisan, national poll released the day Graham was executed showed Bush has a double-digit lead over Vice President Al Gore, 52 percent to 40 percent.

Support for the death penalty remains high, although it has softened nationally. A recent Gallup poll indicates 66 percent of Americans support it, and a Scripps Howard Texas poll Thursday showed 73 percent of Texans are in favor.

The Texas poll also indicated most Texans think the state has executed innocent people. But Bush said he still believes all 134 inmates who have been executed since he became governor were guilty.

While Bush was heckled about Graham's execution during campaign stops last week on the West Coast, he is not being criticized by Gore. The vice president also supports the death penalty and has said he is unfamiliar with the specifics of the Graham case or the record of executions in Texas.

Bush's unwavering support of the death penalty reflects his broader campaign strategy: Focus on a handful of issues and consistently repeat the same message.

In speeches and interviews, he sells his proposal to allow younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts instead of Social Security. On national defense, he advocates reducing the nation's nuclear missile stockpile and creating a high-tech missile defense shield. On education, he wants states that receive federal Title 1 money to require students to meet specific standards.

Bush also has not backed away from his plan to dramatically reduce taxes even though it has not been well-received.

The result is that one of Bush's liabilities, sticking closely to a script, has become one of his strengths.

"It's a carefully contrived, disciplined effort," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political science professor. "They're calling the shots and defining the debate at the moment."

It is the same focused strategy Bush used to defeat incumbent Gov. Ann Richards in 1994. Only then the issues were welfare, crime, education and tort reform.

Bush also has largely avoided high-profile criticism of Gore just as he bit his tongue when Richards berated him in 1994.

"There are some interesting parallels," Bush said. "In 1994, I was diminished. I've been living with the name George Bush all of my life, and proudly so. It's tempting -- "He doesn't know anything. After all, he's got a famous name.' If I've answered once, I've answered 50 times, "If your name was George Johnson, what would you be doing?'. . . But I'm used to that and I'm expecting that. What I am going to do is continue to focus on an agenda."

The Texas governor hasn't had to get tough since the early primaries, when he blasted Sen. John McCain for comparing him to President Clinton. The only ads his campaign has produced since then are upbeat appeals to Hispanic voters that feature his nephew George P. Bush, the handsome son of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Asked to critique Gore's campaign last week, Bush first fell back on one of his standard lines: "He's talking about me and I'm talking about me and that's just the way I like it."

Then he went on.

"It fits a pattern, a pretty predictable pattern of immediately dismissing any idea as risky, dismissive."

During other portions of the hourlong interview, the Texas governor couldn't resist throwing a few barbs toward the vice president and the Clinton administration.

On the Gore campaign's effort to highlight the oil industry's contributions to Bush as motorists complain about high gasoline prices: "I've seen the headlines -- "Gore blames Bush for energy crisis.' As if I am in the administration."

On Defense Secretary William Cohen's offer to brief him on national security issues: "I thought it was illustrative of the comments coming out of the administration, saying, "Oh, he must listen to the Joint Chiefs.' As if Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger, the author of the ABM treaty, and George Schultz and Condoleezza Rice don't know what they're talking about."

On the ongoing controversy in the Northwest over how much timber should be cut and new limits imposed by the president: "I am critical of the way he unilaterally acts."

In e-mails and conference calls to the media, the rhetoric is less reserved. The Bush campaign has poked endless fun at Gore's evolving position on using the stock market to bolster retirement savings and the vice president's change in campaign managers.

When Gore released a plan last week to create new retirement accounts that would use federal money to match contributions by low- and middle-income workers, the Bush campaign was quick to pick it apart.

"Very few people making less than $30,000 a year have the wherewithal to set money aside," said Larry Lindsey, the campaign's chief economic adviser. "I don't know if Mr. Gore is telling people to run up their credit card to do this or what."

Those harder-edged comparisons probably won't burst into full view until after the political conventions. Mark McKinnon, Bush's media consultant, won't say how and when.

"When you get hit, you hit back," he said. "People see that as fair."

Barring new developments in the death penalty debate or another surprise, Bush will confidently cruise toward the Republican convention, which starts July 31 in Philadelphia. Opinion polls indicate Republicans are more united behind him than Democrats are behind Gore, and Bush said he is about to step up his talks about potential running mates with Dick Cheney, his point man on the search.

Don't believe all the speculation about which names are being considered, Bush said last week.

"There are only three people who know what's going on," he said. "Me, Dick and my wife."

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