For Al Gore, it was a final chance. In early April, a week before New York's primary, he needed an issue that would give him leverage against Michael Dukakis. Gore had tried foreign policy; he had tried defense; he had tried Israel. Now, in a debate, he decided to try crime.

When Gore asked Dukakis about "weekend passes for convicted criminals," an uncomfortable Dukakis, after dispassionately reciting statistics, conceded that the Massachusetts furlough program for murderers sentenced to life imprisonment had been canceled.

The issue did not take for Gore, but the exchange attracted the interest of Jim Pinkerton, the research director for the then flailing Bush campaign. "That's the first time I paid attention," said Pinkerton. "I thought to myself, 'This is incredible' ... It totally fell into our lap."

To be sure, some in the Bush campaign were apparently familiar with the furlough issue; days before Gore first broached it, one operative had suggested to reporters that it would be a helpful line of inquiry.

Gore, however, had broken the ice for them, and Pinkerton's effort appears to have been the first systematic response. From April until now, the issue has been transformed. "It's an issue that gets to the heart of the matter," said Lee Atwater, the Bush campaign manager. "It's the single biggest negative Dukakis has got."

It became the essence of the campaign to cast Dukakis as weak -- not only on crime but on foreign policy and defense. It turned Dukakis' own theme against him, by defining him as incompetent. It was also a device to illustrate a lack of feeling by Dukakis -- the "ice man," as Bush put it in their first debate.

From Dukakis' end of the telescope, Bush's use of the furlough issue was evidence of a campaign of "lies." And, to Jesse Jackson, it was a sign of campaign racism, "designed to create the most horrible psychosexual fears ..."

"Race," insisted Atwater, when interviewed, "has nothing to do with this issue. "I would condemn in any way, shape or form the issue used in this way."

At the center of the controversy stands a black man, a convicted first-degree murderer, William Horton Jr., who was furloughed under a program begun under Dukakis' Republican predecessor. While on release, Horton traveled to Maryland, tied up and slashed Cliff Barnes, and raped his wife Angela. Dukakis changed the program only after much public clamor.

The furlough program, to be sure, was not unique. But Dukakis was a sitting governor, still presiding over his policy, and Pinkerton and his team collected whatever material they could glean on the issue. They discovered, in particular, a series of articles on the subject in the Lawrence, Mass., Eagle Tribune -- a series that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987.

"The more people who know who Willie Horton is, the better off we'll be," Atwater recalled Pinkerton telling him. (Pinkerton does not remember the conversation, but said it could well have taken place.) In any case, Pinkerton raised the matter with Atwater. "He's the one who pointed it out to me," said Atwater.

Within a month, in May, in Paramus, N.J., the Bush campaign conducted a focus group to test the furlough question and other issues. Among the leading campaign officials there were Atwater; Robert Teeter, the campaign's pollster; and Roger Ailes, its media director.

"Just tagging him as a liberal alone wouldn't work," said Teeter. "You had to define him a little bit ... My phrase, used internally and then outside {the campaign}, was that he was outside the mainstream of American values ..."

The issue, according to Teeter, was brought to Bush's attention. " 'Wow!' " the vice president said, according to Teeter. " 'These are things I don't agree with.' "

In early June, Bush assailed Dukakis; in a single speech, he brought up Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, the Pledge of Allegiance and, for the first time, the Dukakis program to "furlough murderers from jail."

By the end of the month, Bush was using the issue repeatedly, and in July, the Bush campaign received an unexpected windfall. Reader's Digest, a magazine of decidedly conservative bent, published a specially commissioned seven-page article, "Getting Away With Murder," describing in grisly detail Horton's crimes and Dukakis' hesitations in ending the furlough program. "That created a firestorm at the grass roots," said Pinkerton.

On July 4, Atwater said, he took a vacation to Luray, Va., at a time when a group of motorcyclists was there. At dinner, he said, he overheard a conversation between two biker couples about the Reader's Digest article.

"It was obvious this issue had a life of its own," he said. "I kept talking to them about other things. There was zero interest in the presidential race. But the Willie Horton thing kept sustained interest for 45 minutes."

Later that month, Atwater spoke to a group of southern Republicans who had gathered in Atlanta just prior to the Democratic convention there. A jesting Atwater, in a speech intended to boost party morale, said this:

"There is a story about a fellow named Willie Horton who, for all I know, may end up being Dukakis' running mate ... The guy {Dukakis} was on TV about a month ago, and he said, 'You'll never see me standing in the driveway of my house talking to these {vice presidential} candidates.' And guess what? Monday, I saw in his driveway of his home Jesse Jackson. So anyway, maybe he {Dukakis} will put this Willie Horton on the ticket after all is said and done."

By September, after Bush had surpassed Dukakis in the polls, the Bush campaign aired its first spot on the issue. On a stark black screen came the words: "A Crime Quiz."

Then the announcer: "Which candidate for president gave weekend passes to first-degree murderers who are not even eligible for parole?"

On one side was a picture of a smiling Bush, bathed in a golden sunny glow. On the other was a picture of a disheveled, double-chinned, swarthy Dukakis. His picture came forward in answer to the question.

Finally: "Which candidate can you really trust to be tough on crime?" Bush's picture came forward.

Already, the Washington, D.C.-based National Security Political Action Committee, an independent expenditure group, had briefly aired a spot featuring a picture of Horton.

In the first debate between the candidates on Sept. 25, before Dukakis could reply to a question about crime, there was tittering in the audience. "That was the single most significant thing in the debate," said Atwater. "The one time I really took notice in the whole debate."

Bush continued to campaign on the issue. In early October, playing off Clint Eastwood's admonition as Dirty Harry to criminals, "Go ahead, make my day," Bush said: "My opponent's answer is slightly different. His motto is: 'Go ahead, have a nice weekend.' "

Dukakis was to be cast as "out of the mainstream," against the American grain, a believer in policy experts but not the common sense of the people.

Roger Ailes said: "He'll give you all the legal arguments for it and some guy who crawls out from under a car says, 'That's stupid.' "

In the second debate, on Oct. 13, the first question was to Dukakis, asking him if he would alter his position against the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. Dukakis gave a calm, cool answer -- again the Gore response. And in that moment, it was felt by many observers that the debate was lost. He appeared as unfeeling, fitting the stereotype that the Bush campaign has spent enormous energy constructing.

"It really reinforces this idea that he's lived in a Harvard ivory tower, looking at computer models on recidivism rather than understanding the terror of a crazy person attacking someone," said Ailes. "It's like a guy from outer space, who walks and talks like us but doesn't feel the same things we feel."

After the debate, Bush continued on the attack, as Dukakis began to decry "lies" and "distortions."

"Has Bush peaked on all this? It hasn't got started," said a Bush operative, just after the debate.

On Oct. 20, another independent expenditure group, the Committee for the Presidency, released two 30-second spots, featuring Donna Fournier Cuomo, the sister of the man Horton murdered, and Cliff Barnes, the man he had terrorized.

The committee was created this year by Fred Karger of the Dolphin Group, a Los Angeles-based Republican political consulting firm, which does a good deal of business by fostering statewide referendums and independent expenditure committees. Among fundraisers for the committee have been its cochairman, former Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey; former Rep. Ed Zschau; and KABC-TV commentator Bruce Herschensohn.

The Dolphin Group was founded by the late Bill Roberts, the former partner of Stuart Spencer, who directed Reagan's early campaigns and is now chief handler of Dan Quayle.

After perusing the Reader's Digest article on Horton, Karger and his associates formed the Committee for the Presidency. Horton's victims were contacted to "see if they'd be interested in helping us out," said Karger.

In 1986, the Dolphin Group contributed to the defeat of Rose Bird, the liberal California chief justice, by setting up a group called Crime Victims for Court Reform. These victims, "from the best known in the state to the less known ones," according to Karger, stumped against Bird.

"We're used to dealing with crime victims."