WASHINGTON - In 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to oversee the execution of a cop killer. The decision drew criticism from liberal groups but helped the Democrat shed his party's soft-on-crime image and move toward the political middle.
Now, Texas Gov. George W. Bush has approved his first reprieve in a death penalty case after allowing 131 executions - an act that may appeal to moderate voters.
''At the end of the day, this action can leaven a developing and emerging Bush image of a rather callous approach to the death penalty,'' said Democratic consultant Paul Begala, who was part of Clinton's 1992 braintrust.
Bush, the GOP presidential contender, issued a one-time, 30-day reprieve for Ricky Nolen McGinn, less than a half-hour before the convicted child killer was set to die Thursday, as defense attorneys seek DNA testing of crime scene evidence.
McGinn's case is part of a larger political drama, with new science reshaping the national debate over capital punishment. It also handed Bush an unexpected opportunity to put his ''compassionate conservatism'' philosophy to work and make up for early miscues on the subject of capital punishment.
Bush jumped at the chance, signaling his intention before an appeals court could make his position mute by granting the reprieve on its own.
''It's a case where we're dealing with the man's innocence or guilt,'' Bush explained Wednesday, a day before his input was required.
Bush has been criticized for running a busy death chamber while calling himself a compassionate conservative; there were 35 executions last year and 19 so far this year, including one Wednesday. At least seven executions are scheduled for June.
Bush has spared only one death row inmate.
Rejecting pleas from the Vatican, Bush refused two years ago to keep Karla Tucker from becoming the first woman put to death in Texas since the Civil War.
In a magazine interview during the GOP primaries, Bush was quoted as mocking Tucker's plea for a reprieve. He also raised eyebrows by chuckling - nervously, supporters said - when asked in a debate about inequalities in death penalty cases.
And on Thursday, Bush chose to remain on the campaign trail instead of returning to Texas to grant the reprieve himself. With Bush out of state, that power transferred to Senate president pro tem Rodney Ellis, a Democrat who had not discussed the case with Bush.
''I'm not willing to say Governor Bush is making this a political issue,'' Begala said, criticizing the Texan for not returning home. ''What bothers me more is this will remind us of his cavalier attitude toward the death penalty.''
Begala was working for Clinton in 1992 when the candidate interrupted his presidential campaign to be on call for the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a 40-year-old man who defense attorneys said was mentally incompetent. Rector shot himself in his head after killing a police officer.
Arkansas law did not require Clinton to be in the state for the execution. Critics said he was using Rector to redefine himself and his party.
In a speech to a predominantly black audience shortly after the execution, Clinton displayed his knack for using wedge issues like the death penalty to prove himself a ''new Democrat'' without alienating his party's liberal constituencies.
''Last night, I thought of Mr. Rector and also of Robert Martin, the police officer who was killed in cold blood ... and I prayed that I had not made the wrong decision,'' Clinton said.
Equally adept at finding the political middle ground, Bush brags about his death penalty record while promising to support DNA testing to ''erase any doubts'' about a condemned inmate's guilt.
''This will help him with moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans and ticket-splitters,'' said Mike Lawrence, associate director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
Bush and Democratic rival Al Gore support the death penalty, as do two-thirds of the public. But polls suggest growing concern over whether innocent people are put to death, with advances in DNA testing raising questions about the certainty of capital murder convictions.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in May indicated a majority of people would be more opposed to the death penalty if they knew that an innocent man had been put to death. Pollsters who track the issue say support for capital punishment has declined since the mid-1990s.
Earlier this year, Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in his state after 13 death row inmates were exonerated. The New Hampshire legislature voted last week to abolish the state's death penalty, though the governor vetoed the bill.
And on Thursday, Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia ordered new DNA testing for a convicted rapist and murderer.
Gilmore said nobody should be surprised when a governor takes a second look at a murder case. ''All three of us - Governor Bush, Governor Ryan and myself - are all chief executives. We're the people every day who have to make decisions, some of them life-and-death decisions,'' he said in a telephone interview.
In Illinois, one poll showed that two-thirds of state voters approved of Ryan's moratorium. ''I don't know anybody who wants to put an innocent man to death,'' Ryan said by telephone.
He said his action was not about politics, ''it was just common sense.''
EDITOR'S NOTE - Ron Fournier is chief political writer for The Associated Press.