Democrats still remember the moment that dogged Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race.
Asked whether he would support the death penalty for someone who raped and killed his wife, the former Massachusetts governor gave a dispassionate, almost clinical, recitation of his opposition to capital punishment, arguing there was no evidence of a deterrent effect.
If there were any doubt, Barack Obama made clear at a news conference today that he won't fall into that trap.
Asked about today's US Supreme Court ruling that sentencing someone to death for raping a child is unconstitutional, Obama said he disagreed with such a broad ban.
"I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes. I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime," he said, adding that if a state determines the death penalty should apply in such cases, they should be allowed to impose it.
The high court's ruling invalidates laws in six states that allow the death penalty if child rape cases when the child is not killed.
Obama has tried to toe a nuanced line on the death penalty, saying it should only be used in extreme cases.
In the Illinois legislature, he pushed reforms to the state's capital punishment system to prevent innocent people from being executed. The reforms, after a series of exonerations through DNA and other evidence, included requiring police to videotape interrogations to prevent coerced confessions. Obama also opposed a bill to make it easier to sentence murderers involved in gang activity to get the death penalty.
But he supported death sentences for particularly cruel murders of elderly people.
In his memoir, "Dreams from My Father," Obama wrote that while the death penalty "does little to deter crime," he supports capital punishment in cases "so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.