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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Will the ghost of Willie Horton haunt the U.S. campaign trail of Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee?
Horton was serving life in prison on a murder conviction in Massachusetts and raped a woman in Maryland after he was released in 1986 under a weekend furlough program backed by then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
The presidential campaign of Republican nominee George H.W. Bush used Horton to portray Dukakis, his Democratic opponent, as weak on crime. An attack ad on television played a role in defeating Dukakis in 1988 and showed how effective negative campaigning can be.
Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas who leads the Republican field in Iowa and is rising in national polls, has his own potential Willie Horton, in the name of Wayne Dumond.
Dumond was serving a life prison term for raping a 17-year-old cheerleader in Arkansas in 1984. In 1996 his appeals for clemency attracted the attention of Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, after the inmate was said to have found religion.
Dumond gained freedom when paroled by the state's parole board -- with Huckabee's endorsement -- and moved to the Kansas City area in 1999.
Less than a year later, Carol Sue Shields died of suffocation, and Dumond was convicted in her murder. He died in prison of natural causes in 2005.
The case roiled Arkansas politics at the time and now that Huckabee's presidential campaign is rising, it is getting national attention.
Pressed on the case in an interview on Monday on Fox News, Huckabee said it was the state parole board -- made up of appointees from Democratic Govs. Bill Clinton and Jim Guy Tucker -- that made the decision to free Dumond, not him.
"Should this guy have been let out in retrospect? No. But at the time, the parole board in making the decision to let him go, felt it was a prudent decision to make," Huckabee said.
Not everybody remembers it that way.
Former state Rep. Pat Flanagin, a Democrat, fought the release of Dumond because the Arkansas woman who was raped, Ashley Stevens, was a family friend from his home district.
He said Huckabee pressured the parole board to free Dumond despite a personal protest from Stevens, who during a meeting pressed her face close to Huckabee's and said this is how close Dumond was to her for an hour.
"It is even more so (like) Willie Horton, because he was given very ample warning about the guy, about his background, about his previous sexual offenses and a murder he was involved in previously," Flanagin said.
Stephen Hess, a political science professor at George Washington University, said it is up to Huckabee to explain what happened.
"Given that he acted after Dukakis and Willie Horton, you would think that he would be even more sensitive to this in political terms," Hess said.
Republican strategist John Feehery said the case has some differences from the attack on Dukakis over Horton.
For one thing, there have been no attack ads about Dumond. And for another, the parole for Dumond actually shows the conservative Huckabee in a more moderate light, said Feehery.
"They have to be careful, the opponents, because it makes him seem more compassionate," said Feehery.
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/
Editing by Cynthia Osterman