Boston — Vice-President George Bush keeps hammering Governor Michael Dukakis on the issue of prison furloughs. The mileage Mr. Bush may gain from such a strategy depends on how large crime issues loom in voters' minds. Very large, say three polling organizations contacted, if you equate ``crime'' with ``drugs.'' ``Crime and drugs'' top the list of national concerns for the first time in 15 years, says a senior analyst with Cambridge Reports, an independent polling firm. The issue took off in their national sample starting in mid-July.
Analyst Edward Byers chalks it up to the fact that with ``peace and prosperity, people are thinking about other things.'' An arms control treaty has been signed, he notes, and the national economy has been expanding for the past six years.
A senior analyst at Market Opinion Research, which does polling for Bush and other Republican candidates, also finds that concern over drugs is ``off the scale,'' although he says he thinks the trend started sooner.
``Drugs'' made quite a splash in the '86 campaign as well, notes Frank McBride, but it disappeared quickly. (And remember how much attention the ``farm problem'' commanded not so long ago?) Media and politicians are stirring the issue into the national consciousness this time, he feels.
Harrison Hickman, a partner in a firm that does polling for Democrats, says the ``drugs'' issue has ``bounced in and out of the polls'' for some time.
Uproar over the alleged drug-smuggling activities of Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega has brought the issue back to the fore, he says. Before General Noriega, it was the cocaine-related death of college basketball star Leonard Bias in June 1986 that focused national concern.
Bush may be more vulnerable on the issue than Governor Dukakis, Mr. McBride suggests, because drugs ``is a problem that [voters] are holding the government responsible for.''
With crime rates flat or declining since the early '80s, law and order is a ``symbolic'' topic today, rather than the ``gut'' issue it was in the turbulent '60s, says Princeton criminologist John DiIulio. Latent public opinion, however, is strong, and strongly conservative, he says. ``All you need is one spectacular, visible, well-publicized incident'' to bring out those feelings.