A VIRGINIA woman arrived home over the weekend to find her mailbox stuffed with campaign literature stressing one major theme - crime.
Republican or Democrat, the message was the same. Republican George Allen, the front-running candidate for Virginia governor, vowed in a pamphlet to ``abolish parole'' to ``keep violent criminals ... behind bars.'' A leaflet from Democratic state assemblyman James Almand proclaimed, ``Almand Shows Toughness on Crime.''
On the eve of tomorrow's state and municipal elections, violent crime is making the American people grow ``grim about the mouth,'' as Herman Melville would say. From Virginia to Florida to New Jersey to Seattle, people are fed up with violence in their streets, their schools, and their homes.
Despite tight budgets, politicians are responding with lavish promises to build more prisons and hire more police. Many would also crack down on the sales of guns, get tougher with teenaged troublemakers, and make wider use of the death penalty.
The sluggish economy remains the top concern of Americans. But crime now ranks close behind. Indeed, to many voters, the lack of jobs in the inner cities and murder in the streets by young, gun-toting criminals are closely related.
Glen Bolger, a Republican political consultant, says crime ``has really come to the fore'' in this election, especially in races for mayor in cities like New York, Minneapolis, and Seattle. The crime problem is partly responsible for ``driving the mood'' of Americans toward pessimism, he says.
People see the evidence of crime all around them. In the nation's capital, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly pleaded unsuccessfully with President Clinton to let her mobilize the National Guard to control a drug-fueled murder spree.
In North Carolina, the father of Michael Jordan was gunned down. In Minnesota, a policeman was assassinated.
Pollster Del Ali, after surveying Americans nationwide, says crime is emerging as a top concern of the '90s. ``It's the coming issue,'' he says. ``There's not an iota of doubt on that.''
One reason: Mr. Ali says fear of crime has spread from cities into suburban and rural areas where people used to feel safe. He points to Florida, where people now feel threatened from the quiet communities in the Panhandle to the crowded neighborhoods of Miami.
If crime frightens voters, it is the economy and America's recent foreign adventures that have put them into what one analyst calls ``a sour mood.'' Experts say Americans want results - mostly at home.
Years of domestic neglect, caused by the costly cold war, left many needs unmet. Before last year's presidential election, 83 percent of the voters told Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin that, in the wake of the cold war, the country was headed down the ``wrong track.''
Joblessness was the top worry.
Mr. Clinton's arrival in Washington changed that ``wrong track'' perception - but only briefly. The ``wrong track'' numbers fell to 56 percent in February. ``Right direction'' rose from only 12 percent under President Bush to 39 percent with Clinton.
Then came Bosnia. And the new Clinton tax package. And the loss of American lives in Somalia. And huge layoffs at some of America's premier corporations. Quickly, Clinton began to lose his luster.
By October, the ``wrong track'' tally had risen again to 66 percent, while the ``right direction'' dropped to 25 percent.
David Moore, managing editor of the Gallup Poll, says it will be difficult for political leaders to put smiles back on the faces of Americans, especially in the short run.
Dr. Moore notes that when Clinton talks about health care reform, it reinforces public perceptions that things are not going well in the country - otherwise, why is there a need for reform?
The same attitudes were at work with the budget debate, where the talk was continually about cuts, cuts, cuts. If things were going well, there would be no reason to reduce spending.
Crime deepens these negative attitudes. It is also gradually changing Americans' views toward punishment of criminals, Moore says.
Fifteen years ago, most young people opposed the death penalty, for example. Today, there is ``a real movement toward the death penalty,'' and this is true among all ages.
``Even when people say the country is on the right track, they still want to get tough on crime,'' Moore says.
Mostly because of fear.
A Gallup survey released last week found that nearly as many people in rural areas (19 percent) worry about being murdered as do those in the cities (21 percent). This is so even though the chances of being killed in rural areas are only half as great as they are in the nation's cities, according to FBI figures.
What to do?
Two-thirds of the people polled told Gallup that one answer is to elect officials who will attack the crime problem with full force and vigor.
A tough-minded politician can make a difference, most people say.
Americans also cheer pledges by Clinton and candidates for local office to put more police on the streets.
Eighty percent told Gallup they favor more police, even if it means more taxes.