Talk of death penalty once again brings out the governor's smirk

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The Independent US

We are more than an hour through the 90-minute debate, holed up in a basement lecture theatre. George W Bush - looking animated on the big screen - has been challenged about his alleged opposition to a federal "hate crimes" law. Not so, he says, he favours such a law, indeed Texas already has one.

We are more than an hour through the 90-minute debate, holed up in a basement lecture theatre. George W Bush - looking animated on the big screen - has been challenged about his alleged opposition to a federal "hate crimes" law. Not so, he says, he favours such a law, indeed Texas already has one.

But he says it would have made no difference to the penalty for three white men who killed a black man by dragging him along a road tied to their truck. "The three men who murdered James Byrd?" says Mr Bush. "You know what's going to happen to them? They're going to be put to death."

A satisfied smile plays on Mr Bush's lips, that smirk he had banished for the past six months. There is laughter, but it is not clear whether it stems from shock at the apparent pleasure he takes in brutality, or delight at so unvarnished a statement.

Fifty people had gathered to watch the debate, and 30 of them sat before laptops, their hands poised over their mice. This is the leading edge of electoral research, a collaboration between the opinion website, SpeakOut.com and the Fox News Channel. And the lines being drawn here with these computer mice are gold for pollsters and campaigners.

They tell the experts what works with an audience, and what does not, and they tell it instantly. The 30 were young, old, men, women, some with degrees; a student, a nurse, a retired security guard, a small businessman.

Fifteen minutes before the debate began, they were primed for the start button. "What's the main challenge facing George Bush," asks the energetic "facilitator". Hands shoot up. "He has to tell us why there should be change," a middle-aged man says. "He didn't do that before." Someone else offers: "He has to be more specific. He's too vague on tax cuts.'

They were quickly lambasting both men. "We're intelligent and aren't going to stand for their mudslinging." "They shouldn't talk down to us. Last time they kept repeating the same words. It's like they think we're not hearing them." (So much for the campaign wisdom that messages need to be pressed home again and again before they "take".)

Everyone is asked what one quality is needed in the next president. Honesty, communications skills, integrity, backbone, high morals, and so the list goes on. Character, it seems, trumps expertise, here in North Carolina, where a certain Democratic brand of liberalism does not go down well.

The debate begins, and the 30 volunteers move their mice up and down a horizontal line marked from zero to 100, according to whether they like or dislike what they are hearing.

Aside from the death penalty, the lines stay relatively flat. A woman said: "Maybe he was way too strong, but at least someone came out openly for the death penalty." Then another. "I don't see the point of hate-crimes law; evil is evil, hate is hate. Murder is murder."

No one demurred. "Gore was cocky," said someone on another tack. "Bush's humour is better," said another, approvingly. "Bush sloughed off some questions because he didn't know the answers ... But I liked him better than Gore." For this focus group, it was not Al Gore's night.

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