WASHINGTON — Remember Willie Horton? In 1988, Vice President George Bush used the escape of Horton, a convicted murderer out on furlough in Massachusetts, to pound Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.
Crime was hot in 1988, and the GOP used it to ride back into the White House for four more years.
This year - in contrast - Al Gore and George W. Bush pushed crime and justice issues to the back burner.
Even so, the public has focused on at least one legal issue that could impact many others: the appointment of new justices to the United States Supreme Court.
A nationwide poll this week found voters are seriously considering the impact their vote today will have on the future shape of the court.
More than 70 percent of those surveyed said the presidential candidates' views on court appointments were "very important" to them in choosing whom to support. Another 26 percent said it was "somewhat important."
Karri, a young, single woman who works at a financial company in Nashville, was one of those who described the court-appointment issue as "very important." A registered Republican, she told a Monitor reporter:
"We need conservative views. You have liberals [on the court] and there's more crime. Republicans are for tougher penalties."
The court issue often serves as a surrogate for the ongoing nationwide debate over abortion. "I think abortion should be outlawed. It's murder," says Karri.
Democrats' views are just as strong. Kay Gallagher, a widow living in Reston, Va., also sees the court issue as "very important" on a number of fronts: abortion (she supports abortion rights), affirmative action (she favors it), and the death penalty (she opposes it).
On the death penalty, Mrs. Gallagher says: "I think that if the court were more liberal, there might be more cases that would demand DNA testing."
The Monitor/TIPP poll also probed the public's views on two other issues: gun control and capital punishment. Again, the survey found widely diverging views.
At one point, Vice President Gore and the Democrats were expected to make gun control a cutting-edge issue against Governor Bush. But it didn't happen, in part because of the public's strongly divergent views on guns.
The Monitor/TIPP asked likely voters what approach they would favor on the gun issue, if they had to pick only one: tougher federal laws, fewer federal laws, or stricter enforcement of existing laws.
A majority (61 percent) said that Washington's first priority should be tougher enforcement of laws already on the books.
Additional federal laws were supported by 29 percent, while 9 percent said they would prefer fewer federal gun laws.
Tim Frank, a dentist in Great Falls, Mont., joins with those who would repeal some of the gun laws already on the books.
"The purpose of the Second Amendment was not for people to defend themselves against criminals but against the government," says Mr. Frank, who is a Republican. "Gun laws don't do a ... bit of good."
Hector Lozano, a Democrat, is disabled, but formerly worked as a truck driver in Fremont, Ohio. He wants tougher gun laws, but wonders if they will work.
"People will do whatever they feel like doing. Just like marijuana." He says illegal drugs are widely used in his working-class neighborhood.
The death penalty gets strong support from Americans, though there is also support for another option.
Overall, 48 percent favor the death penalty, the Monitor/TIPP poll found. Support was strongest in the South (51 percent), weakest in the Northeast (36 percent). Republicans (64 percent) favor it more than Democrats do (34 percent). Men favor it (57 percent) more than women do (40 percent).
However, 41 percent of those surveyed said they would prefer an alternative to the death penalty - namely, a life sentence without any chance of parole. That option won particularly strong support in the Northeast (53 percent), among Democrats (50 percent), women (47 percent), and liberals (57 percent).
Marion Shellaberger, a grandmother in LeMoore, Calif., says she fully supports the death penalty - provided the evidence leaves no room for doubt.
However, Gallagher, the woman from Reston, favors lifetime imprisonment with no chance of parole. "We have too many executions," she says.
The Monitor/TIPP survey was conducted by Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, a unit of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence.
Staff writer Stephanie Cook contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society