Faced with polls that indicate a large majority of Americans support the death penalty, many -- such as former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno in her failed 2002 bid to become governor of Florida -- have sought to draw distinctions between their personal beliefs and their public duty.
"There are plenty of Democratic politicians who have been able to pull that off as district attorneys and governors," said Joshua Marquis, an Oregon district attorney and a leading death penalty advocate. "But there comes a point at which, if you feel that strongly, you just can't be part of the machinery of death."
Kaine says he was morally obligated to represent the death row inmates.
At the same time, candidates who favor the death penalty have been less inclined to make it an issue recently because of the increasing number of times that DNA evidence has exonerated death row inmates.
Elisabeth Semel, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and longtime opponent of capital punishment, said Virginia's could be the most prominent governor's race in years to highlight the issue.
"It's a tragedy that at a time when throughout the U.S. the death penalty is finally being questioned by the American public we would have a campaign that is a throwback to another era," she said.
Observers of Virginia politics say they expect Kilgore's media team to produce television ads and political mailings based on Kaine's comments about the Tuggle and Whitley cases.
In 1987, as Kaine was waiting for Whitley's execution, he told one newspaper, "Something personal in me will die, too." He told The Washington Post that "murder is wrong in the gulag, in Afghanistan, in Soweto, in the mountains of Guatemala, in Fairfax County . . . and even the Spring Street Penitentiary."
Cantrell said those comments cast doubt on what Kaine would do when presented with the opportunity to commute a death sentence. In other states, governors have imposed moratoriums on capital punishment.
"Everyone deserves a defense attorney. We're not questioning that," Cantrell said. "It's just, this guy wants to be governor. The governor has the power, one by one, to issue a backdoor moratorium with no accountability to anyone."
Elleithee said Kaine "is not going to put his energies" toward a moratorium, though Kaine said in 2001 that he supported one. Elleithee said Kaine did not seek out the Tuggle and Whitley cases. In both cases, he agreed to take them on when their lawyers quit.
"He wasn't going to walk away from that ethical responsibility," Elleithee said.
Kaine has received some support for that position. Several editorials in newspapers across the state have taken Kilgore to task for attacking his opponent's legal work.
And Joseph E. diGenova, a Republican former U.S. attorney in Washington who earned fame for pursuing investigation of former mayor Marion Barry, criticized Kilgore on CNN's "Crossfire" recently.
"I think lawyers represent all types of clients," diGenova told host James Carville.
"It's their duty to do so, especially if they're appointed by the court. I just differ with Mr. Kilgore on that question."