Even as crime rates have steadily dropped, machete slashings, fatal shootings and other acts of gang violence in Northern Virginia have risen in recent years, making street gangs a prominent issue in Virginia's race for governor.

Republican Jerry W. Kilgore has made his law-and-order approach to gangs a centerpiece of his campaign. Kilgore, a former prosecutor and public safety secretary, said gangs were a top priority in his most recent state job as attorney general. As governor, Kilgore said, he would continue to push for stiffer sentences and the death sentence for some gang crimes.

"We're going to get tough on gangs in my administration," Kilgore said in an interview.

Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has offered anti-gang proposals that focus on funding law enforcement and prevention programs as part of a general public safety platform. He highlighted his tenure as a leader in crime-rattled Richmond and said he would put money toward the problem, not just pass laws.

"If we're going to be tough on crime, we can't be cheap on crime," Kaine said in an interview, repeating a line he has used throughout the campaign.

In the past decade, gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a Latino gang that is the region's largest, have penetrated Northern Virginia's suburbs and rural areas and have been blamed for a growing number of the area's homicides, rapes and beatings. Police say there is a gang presence in every high school, and some gang members are as young as 8 years old.

Many registered voters said they are concerned about gangs in their schools and communities. In a Washington Post poll taken Sept. 6 through 9, 90 percent of registered Virginia voters called reducing gang violence an "important" issue in deciding how they would vote for governor, ranking it neck and neck with taxes and transportation. Seven percent called it the "most important" issue.

Kilgore has said he would continue to be a vocal supporter for Boys and Girls Clubs and launch a rehabilitation program for gang members convicted for the first time of non-felony offenses.

But many of Kilgore's proposals are more hard-line, including three that would make more crimes punishable by death. He wants to expand the definition of capital murder to include the killing of witnesses and any gang-related slayings. He also proposes to abolish Virginia's "triggerman" rule so gang leaders and others who order killings could also face the death penalty.

Kilgore made the proposal in this year's legislative session. A Senate committee sent the plan to a commission for further study.

Gang leaders are "ordering their members [to kill people], and they're escaping the harshest punishment," Kilgore said.

Kaine has said he opposes the death penalty for religious reasons but would uphold the law. Kaine would not support expanding the death penalty, said his spokeswoman, Delacey Skinner.

Kaine said he has proved that he is tough on crime, citing Project Exile, a program he helped implement as mayor and as a member of the City Council in Richmond. Under the program, gun-wielding criminals faced longer sentences. The program was credited with slashing the high homicide rate in the city and was expanded statewide in 1999, but the General Assembly cut its funding in 2003.

Kaine wants to restore funding and launch "Juvenile Exile," which would enhance penalties for some youths convicted of illegally using guns. That would help control violent crime, and, by extension, gangs, he said.

His gang-specific proposals include hiring more state troopers so gang investigators can focus on gangs full time. He also wants to hire more school police officers, offer anti-gang training to teachers and principals and give gang-prevention grants to schools.

Kaine said one of his education proposals -- to make pre-kindergarten available statewide -- would also keep children out of gangs by helping them succeed in school. Kaine said he is willing to fund anti-gang initiatives, citing his support for a 2004 tax increase that helped pay for public safety and anti-gang initiatives. Kilgore opposed the increase.

State Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), an independent candidate who has called his approach "fiscally responsible," said he supports the death penalty, stiff prison sentences for gang members and more raises and benefits for sheriff's deputies. But he has not outlined a crime platform.

"To be elected governor, you don't have to introduce 20 new plans," he said. "You have to fully fund and reinforce what you have."

Virginia, like other states, has responded to gang violence with harsher sentences and gang-specific criminal charges. Governors can push such initiatives through legislatures or oppose them. But some researchers and observers are skeptical that state policies -- no matter what form -- can reduce gang violence.

John Moore, director of the National Youth Gang Center in Tallahassee, said no studies have examined the effectiveness of state anti-gang policies, though he said many experts support programs that try to keep youths out of gangs over suppressive techniques. Some experts say, though, that even prevention programs might not work. Malcolm W. Klein, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, said they might do harm by drawing attention to gangs. So far, he said, experts are unsure what can curb gangs.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), a former police officer and member of the legislature's Crime Commission, said state laws cannot stop gangs but can help law enforcement officials identify and control them. Like other Kilgore supporters, including the Virginia chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, Stolle said Kilgore's experience and dedication to the gang issue are key.

"To a very large degree, Kilgore has a proven track record," Stolle said.

Kaine has been endorsed by the Virginia Coalition of Police and Deputy Sheriffs, whose leaders said they think a Kaine administration would fight crime by making sure law enforcement officers are well-paid and trained -- key, they said, to stemming attrition. Other supporters said Kaine has a broader vision for curbing gangs.

"You have to think not only about law enforcement resources . . . but you've got to think about proactive, preventive measures, which include educational and economic opportunities," Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel (D) said. "Kaine is more committed to those kinds of endeavors."

Republican Jerry W. Kilgore fields questions from reporters before he and Timothy M. Kaine (D) debate in McLean.