AUSTIN, Texas - As the debate over whether the state executed an innocent man spills over into the governor's race, Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison are operating by a longtime rule of Texas politics: Don't mess with the death penalty.
Perry defends the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham and assures conservative voters who will decide the Republican primary that the state's system of capital punishment is sound.
Hutchison's task is more complicated. She argued that Perry, by politicizing the investigation, poses a threat to the death penalty by casting a cloud over the system.
History shows that in Texas, it's nearly impossible to be elected to statewide office without supporting capital punishment.
Polls show that nearly three-quarters of Texans support it, and the numbers are even higher among conservative Republicans.
But even among Democrats, support for the death penalty is a virtual requirement. In the robust Democratic primary in 1990, all three candidates tried to outdo each other on their willingness to execute the bad guys.
"There's a strong law-and-order tradition in Texas," said Corey Ditslear, a professor at the University of North Texas who specializes in judicial politics. "It's a frontier state, a breakaway from Mexico that charted its own path by maintaining law and order."
The Willingham investigation, though, could introduce an element that all candidates dislike: unpredictability.
Willingham maintained his innocence in the 1991 Corsicana house fire that killed his three children. Although evidence at the trial pointed to his guilt, subsequent investigations by experts have raised questions about whether the fire was arson.
An independent expert hired by the state forensic commission concluded the arson investigation was flawed. But two days before the panel was to hear the report, Perry replaced three members of the commission, including the chairman.
The meeting was canceled, and Perry's new appointee has yet to reschedule it, and it's unclear what, if anything, the panel will do next.
Inside the Perry political campaign, there were concerns that the governor's actions were feeding a growing election-season controversy, a campaign insider said.
Last week, Perry went on the offensive, portraying Willingham as a "monster" who "tried to beat his wife into an abortion," killed his children and deserved to die. He accused the state's independent expert of "a very politically driven agenda" that benefited the anti-death penalty movement.
Political operatives believe that Perry can weather the storm because, in the end, he's on the side of the death penalty.
Inside the Hutchison camp, operatives wanted to be sure she was not seen as soft on capital punishment in attacking Perry. Her campaign issued a statement asserting that she was actually tougher because the appearance of a cover-up was "giving liberals an argument to discredit the death penalty."
In effect, each Republican accused the other of giving political aid and comfort to death-penalty opponents.
Debra Medina, a libertarian also seeking the Republican nomination, accused Perry of ignoring evidence in the case.
Ditslear said that so long as Perry can frame the Willingham case as a disagreement among experts, he won't be damaged politically. But if the public - including Republican primary voters - begin losing confidence in the system, it could be a problem, he said.
Between 700,000 and 1 million people are expected to vote in the Republican primary. They are overwhelmingly conservative and supportive of the death penalty.
Former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor, prosecuted several capital cases and says he continues to support the death penalty.
Earle said people in both parties support capital punishment because they believe the system works.
"Texans believe in law and order, but mostly Texans are fair," he said. "They believe in the death penalty, but the guy had better be guilty."
In 1990, Democrats seeking their party's gubernatorial nomination competed with each other over who was responsible for sending more people to the death chamber.
Ann Richards fended off a commercial in which Jim Mattox accused her of being the choice of Texas death-row inmates.
Mattox touted the fact that he attended most executions as attorney general and helped redesign how officials carried out the death penalty.
And former Gov. Mark White aired a commercial taking personal responsibility for those executed during his tenure.
Walking among the black-and-white portraits of men put to death, White said: "As governor, I made sure they received the ultimate punishment - death."
White, now a lawyer in Houston and the only one of the three Democratic candidates still living, said he supported capital punishment every time he ran for office but no longer does because of the risk of a mistake.
"We're very tough on crime in Texas," he said. "But as tough as old Mark was on crime and for the death penalty, when I review it today, I have very, very serious reservations about trusting our system of government making the right decision every time and not executing an innocent person."
Ditslear said that erosion of public support is reflected in polls. A 2007 poll conducted by Sam Houston State University, found that while 74 percent of Texans support the death penalty, that's down from 80 percent in 2001.
Still, Texans continue to back capital punishment in big numbers, which political candidates know.