`CRIME is the issue of the 1994 campaign,'' says Republican analyst Doug Bailey.
Democratic pollster Peter Hart agrees. ``People are more concerned than ever,'' Mr. Hart says. Four out of every 10 Americans ``have changed their way of living'' because of anxiety about drug-related crime, he observes.
Wary Americans are installing steel bars on their windows, avoiding high-crime areas, and staying home after dark in cities, suburbs, and even in rural farm communities. With fall elections exactly seven months away, Republicans and Democrats are sharpening their appeals to voters.
The big question for candidates: What crime solutions have political appeal? Do voters want to get tough? Or would they favor more complex solutions for crime, including job training and treatment for drug addicts?
The short answer seems to be - both. Recent studies find voters more sophisticated about crime than in the 1980s, when they embraced the one-dimensional ``war on drugs.'' Today's voters are skeptical of simple solutions and are willing to consider wide-ranging answers to crime problems.
Even so, criminal violence has become so troubling for many Americans that other issues are being swept into its powerful vortex. For example, Mr. Bailey, publisher of ``The Hotline'' news service, says public concern about crime explains the growing interest by politicians in immigration and welfare.
``When I say crime is the issue, immigration is a crime issue,'' he explains. ``Welfare is a crime issue, in the public's mind. [And] if welfare is a crime issue, then welfare reform is a crime issue.''
Mention immigration, and many Americans remember last year's bombing of the New York World Trade Center by immigrants, or the stolen car rackets run by illegal immigrants along the Texas border. Mention welfare, and many Americans see a breakdown of the traditional, two-parent family, with attendant juvenile crime and urban murder.
Although the United States has locked up record numbers of criminals in state and federal prisons, the public is demanding even tougher action - and politicians seem ready to respond.
The risk of being `soft'
In California, for example, Gov. Pete Wilson (R) was badly trailing Democrat Kathleen Brown in the race for governor. But Governor Wilson's support for capital punishment (Ms. Brown opposes it), and his attacks against illegal immigration have shrunk the Democrat's lead.
``Kathleen Brown would be the governor of California one year from now if it weren't for this [crime] issue.... The issue will dominate,'' Bailey says.
A survey released this week by the Times Mirror Center for The People and The Press shows why the crime issue has so much clout.
Nationwide, 32 percent of Americans rate crime the nation's top problem, with another 10 percent naming illicit drugs as the leading concern. Among nonwhite Americans, the numbers are even higher - 37 percent citing crime, 17 percent naming illegal drugs. By contrast, President Clinton's top domestic issue, health care, is mentioned by only 14 percent nationwide, and by 9 percent of nonwhite Americans.
Another study published this week by Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc., indicates that Americans aren't just looking for simple, quick solutions, however.
Hart asked 1,001 Americans to choose between two candidates, ``A'' and ``B.'' Candidate A favors fighting drug abuse with more money for police, boot camps for first-time drug users, and longer, mandatory jail time for drug dealers and users.
Candidate B favored a softer approach: court-supervised treatment for drug users, drug education programs, intensive drug treatment, and longer mandatory sentences for drug dealers.
Candidate B, emphasizing treatment over prison, came out ahead 63 to 31, a choice Hart calls ``sophisticated and balanced.''
No simple answers
Hart predicts that the public's growing experience with what works and what doesn't means that in the fall elections, it will be harder for candidates to grandstand the drug issue with a simple, throw-away-the-key attitude toward criminals.
Former Gov. Tom Kean (R) of New Jersey says the public's attitude is understandable.
Punitive answers aren't all wrong, especially for violent criminals, he says. But beyond that, there is strong public support for treatment.
Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster, makes a similar point. When politicians talk only of punishment, it does not seem credible to voters, he says. ``People want honest answers,'' Mr. Garin says.
Although there are reports that some crimes are actually declining in the US, the Times Mirror survey includes startling statistics about the level of reported criminal activity.
Among those interviewed, 24 percent said they, or members of their families, were victims of crime over the past 12 months.