Wasn't crime once a national political issue?

In 1988, the Republicans spared no effort to bind Michael S. Dukakis with imprisoned killer Willie Horton, tying Dukakis in the public mind to failed crime policies and damaging the Democrat's campaign for the White House.

Indeed, for two decades, the tactic of accusing Democrats of softness on crime was a reliable GOP vote-getter. The charge suggested feckless leadership to many voters and tinged the political campaigns with race.

Yet 12 years later, the political sands have shifted so dramatically that Texas Gov. George W. Bush did not even mention the word in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. Vice President Gore gave the subject several paragraphs after discussing themes from schools and Social Security to Medicare and morality.

The change is due partly to crime rates that have declined by more than 38 percent between 1993 and 1998.

Perhaps equally important, many Democrats have started to sound more like Republicans by supporting stricter punishment, more policing and, often, the death penalty. The shift has largely removed the issue from the GOP column, according to politicians, analysts and law enforcement leaders.

"What I think you've witnessed is the disappearance of crime as a Republican wedge issue," said Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Now that gun control is on the table, some analysts believe the Democrats are positioned to go one step further and steal votes from the Republicans on crime. Opinion polls show Gore at par with or ahead of Bush when voters are asked which candidate best represents their views on guns.

"To the extent there is anxiety in the United States, it isn't about crime, it is about violence," Zimring said. "The school shootings are a wonderful example. That turns the politics of crime into the politics of guns."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) put it another way: "I hope to God that Bush attacks us on crime. I think we would eat them alive."

It was not always so. The Republicans dined on Democratic presidential candidates for years. While Barry Goldwater campaigned against "crime in the streets" in 1964, it was Richard M. Nixon four years later who turned "law and order" into a central issue in national politics against the backdrop of urban riots and the infamous mayhem outside the 1968 Democratic convention.

By the time George Bush became the Republican nominee in 1988, his advisers and pollsters knew from New Jersey focus groups that they had a winner in the Horton case. A convicted Massachusetts murderer, Horton absconded on his 10th weekend furlough and raped a Maryland woman. Soon, Bush was pummeling Dukakis as the "furlough king," erasing the Massachusetts governor's 17-point lead in the polls.

"The code words were 'permissiveness' and 'lawlessness,' " recalls Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. "They were winning issues because people were so worried about the rise in crime rates. The Republicans painted Dukakis . . . as a liberal softie."

Enter Bill Clinton. In 1992, the Arkansas governor was determined not to take second place in anyone's toughness-on-crime poll. To emphasize the point, he flew home from the campaign trail to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a 40-year-old black man convicted of killing a white police officer.

Rector shot himself in the head and suffered brain damage after he killed the officer. Accustomed to eating his dessert just before bedtime, he put aside the pie from his last meal as he walked to the death chamber. And, before he died, he said he intended to vote for Clinton in November.

"You can't law-and-order Clinton," a former prosecutor and American Civil Liberties Union lawyer said at the time. "If you can kill Rector, you can kill anybody."

Two years later, an impressive 42 percent of Americans listed crime as the nation's No. 1 problem, said University of Chicago researcher Tom Smith. George W. Bush used the crime issue to defeat one of the most popular politicians anywhere, Texas Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat.

But two things were happening that would boost the Democrats. Crime rates began a dramatic decline that still continues, and the Democrats began backing tougher federal crime measures.

"The Democrats got tired of letting us beat them with that club," said GOP strategist Ed Rogers, deputy to Bush's 1988 campaign manager, Lee Atwater, an architect of the Horton campaign. "They finally got the message, politically speaking, the tougher the better on crime. There hasn't been much room between their rhetoric and our rhetoric."

In 1996, Republican nominee Robert J. Dole questioned Clinton's commitment to public safety and promised a "real war" on crime. He said liberalism, reflected in federal judicial appointments, was one of the "root causes of the crime explosion."

Clinton fought back fiercely and effectively, pointing out that Dole and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich opposed the Brady handgun control law and that many Republican politicians favored a repeal of the ban on assault weapons.

The president also touted a crime bill that turned dozens of offenses into federal crimes and boasted about Justice Department subsidies designed to put 100,000 more police officers on the street. He won the endorsement of the national Fraternal Order of Police, a union that counts 293,000 members. The FOP had supported George Bush in 1992.

As the FOP considers its 2000 endorsement, which Executive Director James Pasco expects to be made in early September, Gore and George W. Bush are so far treating crime as a second-tier issue. In a June 29 Gallup poll, 12 percent of respondents identified crime and violence as the most important problem facing the country, down from 20 percent two years ago.

In important ways, their publicly spoken approaches are similar. Both talk tough and both favor the death penalty, with 143 Texans executed since Bush took office in 1995. Both talk of adult society's need to set a better moral example and pay more attention to children.

Yet when it comes to specifics, the differences often seem modest. Bush wants to eliminate federal support for the 100,000 police officers project. He touts the Texas record of increased criminal convictions and longer prison sentences.

Gore favors a constitutional amendment to guarantee victims' rights, a pitch he is making in campaign advertisements. He praises the 100,000 police officers program and calls for 50,000 more. He says he wants to be "a law enforcement president."

"It's just one-upmanship about who can be the toughest," contends Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. "There's really no debate on crime anymore. You've got to be able to show some difference. I don't think there's any difference."

In recent times, much of the violence attracting great attention has been committed by children, often on school grounds where young gunslingers enact murderous fantasies. Kids killing kids is a story that grabs attention, as in February in Michigan, where a first-grader shot a classmate after stealing a gun from the drug house where he was staying.

Such crimes are viewed differently from burglaries and many urban slayings because, as Pew's Kohut puts it, "they speak to a larger moral decay." With that in mind, the presidential candidates are preaching moral uplift and increased personal responsibility, aiming to show concern for the troubled as well as fierceness toward the guilty.

Gore, like Clinton before him, points to guns as part of the problem. And that is where a notable difference exists between the two candidates. Bush believes current gun laws are adequate and simply should be better enforced, while Gore favors stricter regulation of gun sales and ownership.

"Clinton has taken the general crime issue away from the Republicans, and he has equated gun crime with crime, which puts the Republicans in a very difficult position. Whenever they mention crime, he says we need to deal with guns," Pasco said.

"I'm not saying the Republicans are at all soft on crime," Pasco said, "but Clinton has found a novel way to make them look that way."