DEMOCRATS worry that the issue of capital punishment, which is rapidly gaining public support, could play into Republican hands in coming elections. Public anger over crime has soared because of drug wars, gang violence, and a sharply higher murder rate in large cities. Americans are demanding more police protection and tougher criminal sentences, including the death penalty.
Pollsters report that public sentiment in favor of the death penalty is the strongest it has been in more than 50 years. Nearly four out of five Americans say that murderers should be executed.
Robert Beckel, a Democratic strategist, says: ``I think capital punishment will be the litmus test of politics in the '90s the way abortion was in the '70s and '80s.''
Mr. Beckel, who ran Walter Mondale's campaign for the White House in 1984, says capital punishment is a ``very difficult'' issue for Democrats to deal with. Many activist Democrats, who are influential in the party leadership and in presidential primaries, oppose the death penalty.
On the other hand, Republicans, who strongly support capital punishment, could use the crime issue to their advantage in the 1990 congressional elections, and in the 1992 race for the White House, analysts say.
One leading Democrat, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, already finds himself caught at the center of a heated debate over capital punishment.
For the seventh time, Governor Cuomo recently vetoed a capital-punishment bill passed by the New York Legislature. But with public sentiment running high, state legislators appear close to overriding the governor.
``If that happens in New York, the ... last great bastion against capital punishment ... I can't imagine how you could stave off this movement,'' Beckel says.
The Gallup Organization, in a June survey, found the public demanding tougher treatment of criminals. Gallup reports that 83 percent of those surveyed said they thought the courts were ``not harsh enough'' on criminals. Some 79 percent say courts let criminals off too easily.
The Gallup survey found voters strongly favoring stricter standards for parole, denial of bail while awaiting trial, and more stringent gun-control laws.
Richard Wirthlin, who served as President Reagan's pollster, says Democratic concern about capital punishment and the crime issue is valid. Dr. Wirthlin says crime and drugs have shot to the top of the charts in recent months as the leading public concerns.
In a Republican survey completed in May, crime and drugs together were named as the most important public policy issue by 32 percent of the American voting public. The next highest issue, the economy, got a paltry 7 percent.
Wirthlin says Democrats have reason to worry about the whole gamut of crime problems, including drugs and criminal sentencing. The voters who are most concerned about crime, Wirthlin's research shows, are those making less than $15,000 a year: blacks, women, blue-collar workers, and the elderly - all groups important to Democratic political prospects.
This could open up a wide array of voters to Republicans, who could use the crime issue to lure voting groups that normally go Democratic.
Unless a ``mega-issue,'' such as a recession or a war, intrudes before the next election, the crime and capital-punishment issues could play directly into Republican hands, Wirthlin suggests.
POLITICAL scientist Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia notes that the capital-punishment issue is not new - it's been a factor in Virginia politics since at least 1985. But the issue has ``gained a great deal of intensity'' recently, he says.
``As crime has gone up, capital punishment has loomed as a much greater issue at all levels of politics,'' Dr. Sabato says.
The capital-punishment issue clearly shows a split between Democratic activists and mainstream American thinking, Sabato explains. That's particularly true in a place like Iowa, where Democrats will kick off their next presidential campaign. Democratic activists ``don't get much more liberal than they are in Iowa,'' he says.
Some analysts suggest that it is too early for Democrats to start worrying about the crime issue. After all, the 1992 presidential election is still a long way off.
But Sabato disagrees. ``People never get tired of issues like the death penalty. There will always be a Willie Horton-type case out there to use,'' he says, referring to the controversial pro-Bush ad used on TV by Republicans in 1988.
``Violent crime is unlikely to disappear'' by 1992, Sabato observes. It's the kind of ``hot-button issue'' that often decides elections.