GOP tries to regain leadership on drug fight. In the fight against drugs, public confidence is shifting to the Democrats. With a new antidrug bill, the GOP seeks to recover lost ground

The Republicans are poised for battle against drug abuse. But drug pushers and cartels aren't the only adversary. GOP sights are also set on the Democrats, who, with the help of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have seized the high ground on the issue. In a counteroffensive to regain their grip on one of the leading issues of the 1988 presidential and congressional campaigns, House Republicans released an omnibus antidrug legislative package this week. Vice-President George Bush went to Capitol Hill to endorse the effort, taking the opportunity to jab at his political opponents.

``I am sick and tired ... of hearing the Democrats do nothing but tear down and criticize. I'm talking about Jesse Jackson and Mike Dukakis,'' Mr. Bush said to an applauding Republican audience. ``They are trying to make it into a shrill political issue.''

Bush invited the Democrats to join in supporting the Republican initiative and dared Gov. Michael Dukakis, the presumptive Democratic nominee, to support the death penalty for major drug dealers involved in murder or other terrorist actions.

``I challenge the Democrats to stand up on this point,'' Bush said. ``They say this is a war, then treat it as such, and don't let these killers back on the streets.'' If they don't support capital punishment for murderous drug lords, Bush says, his opponents owe the American people an explanation.

Dukakis campaign staff aides say he is generally opposed to the death penalty.

Mr. Dukakis charges the Reagan administration with bungling its antidrug efforts and for its association with Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the Panamanian strong man who has been indicted by a federal grand jury on drug-trafficking charges. Vice-President Bush, who headed the administration's National Narcotics Border Interdiction System task force, is closely associated with the administration's drug policies.

In a CBS/New York Times poll released in April, Americans were asked what they considered the most important foreign policy issue facing the United States. Drug trafficking outranked arms control, terrorism, Central America, and Palestinian unrest at least 2 to 1. When the same survey asked whether the Reagan administration ``has made a serious effort'' to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the US, only 38 percent agreed.

``The American people choose Dukakis over Bush as best able to fight drugs and choose the Democrats over the Republicans as best able to crack down on drugs,'' says Democratic pollster Paul Maslin.

This is a marked change from just two years ago, when polls showed the public had more confidence in the Republicans to deal with the issue. ``At the very least, the issue seems to have been neutralized as a Republican strength and may even have become a Democratic advantage,'' Mr. Maslin says.

Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin says it isn't clear that George Bush or Michael Dukakis holds the advantage. But, he says, ``It is clear that drugs may well be the most prominent single issue of public concern in the fall campaign.''

The GOP legislative package, which House Republicans say would cost about $250 million above current administration requests, covers a broad range of actions, including education, rehabilitation, user accountability, and tougher law enforcement.

To curb the demand side of drug use, the bill would force states to revoke drivers' licenses of convicted drug offenders and sets up civil penalties that would assess a fine of 25 percent of the gross income of any person caught possessing illegal substances. Repeat offenders would lose eligibility for many types of federal grants, loans (such as student loans), and contracts. Companies receiving federal contracts would be required to show good faith efforts to maintain a ``drug-free workplace.''

The bill would establish the death penalty for ``drug kingpins'' who are convicted of drug-related killings and for major dealers linked to terrorist organizations. Anyone charged with a drug offense would have his bail revoked if subsequent drug testing indicated continuing drug abuse. Criminals seeking parole and on parole would be tested to ensure no illegal drug use.

A multinational antidrug task force would be established in Asia and the Americas to involve designated countries in efforts to curb production of illegal drugs. Law-enforcement officials in the countries would be eligible for special training and assistance.

The House Republicans also call for a greater role by the US military and the National Guard in stopping drugs flowing across US borders.

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