DETROIT -- Pervasive fear of violent crime is dominating mayoral races across the country in a year that is seeing the largest turnover of big-city mayors in more than three decades.
In cities as diverse as Boston, Miami, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Detroit, whether the races pit blacks against blacks, blacks against whites, whites against whites, or involve other ethnic groups, veteran mayors are retiring, and crime is the dominant issue. In cities from New York to Seattle, challengers are using crime as a battering ram to try to unseat incumbents.
Experts say the mayoral races, which are dominating the political landscape, and the rash of retirements reflect the grim times and diminished expectations in the nation's cities as maintaining order has replaced dreams of minority empowerment or urban innovation.
"There are not a whole lot of subtleties to these races," said David Axelrod, a Chicago-based political consultant whose candidates include Dennis Archer, one of the two candidates bidding to replace Coleman A. Young, who is retiring after 20 years as Detroit mayor. "There are fundamental fears, crime being the leading one, among the people who live in cities, and they want someone to address them. Everything else is secondary."
Still, one complication is race, which ranges from an overt issue in the conflict between Mayor David N. Dinkins and Rudolph W. Giuliani in New York to a more complex factor in other elections around the nation, including the one in Detroit.
In some cases, the mayoral retirements reflect either special circumstances, like Raymond L. Flynn of Boston resigning to become ambassador to the Vatican, or are affected by age or health concerns like the decisions of Mr. Young and Tom Bradley of Los Angeles to give up their jobs after more than two decades in office. A conservative businessman, Richard Riordan, was elected mayor of Los Angeles last June.
But at least as common are the frustrations of running cities in the 1990s, when addressing mounting needs with falling resources is the norm.
"The greatest need in our cities is to create jobs, but when you don't get any help from the state or from Washington, it's just a very tough time to be a mayor," said John Daniels, who is stepping down after four years as mayor of New Haven, Conn. "I think if I had run, I would have won, but I just think the next two years would be some of the same old stuff, just continually fighting and fighting and not really making any accomplishment."
Among other big-city mayors giving up their jobs are Xavier Suarez of Miami, Maynard Jackson of Atlanta; Donald Fraser of Minneapolis; Sophie Masloff of Pittsburgh; James Griffin of Buffalo, N.Y.; James Scheibel of St. Paul, Minn.; and Thomas Ryan of Rochester, N.Y.
Crime is a main issue in the mayoral race in New York, and it is hardly surprising that crime would dominate a race in Detroit, where urban violence has long been prevalent.
Sharon McPhail, a lawyer and administrator in the Wayne County prosecutor's office, who is running with Mr. Young's endorsement, has promised to put an additional 2,000 police officers on the streets, a proposal that has generated a widespread belief that it will never happen. Mr. Archer touts a reorganization of the police department that would add 380 officers.
But even in Minneapolis, long a home of sedate, good government, voters face an election driven by crime fears. John Derus, who was voted out last year as Hennepin County commissioner, came from nowhere to finish second in the primary last month by running a strident law-and-order campaign.
In most cases, the debate over crime has revolved around who can put the most police on the streets.
Also common are calls for "community-based" policing, which is being advocated by candidates like Ms. McPhail in Detroit and Bill Campbell, the front-runner in Atlanta.
Few doubt that fear of violent crime is a legitimate issue and an overriding fact of life in urban America. But some question whether either the campaign debates or the focus on law enforcement is likely to be effective in combating it.
"The politicians . . . are trying to exploit people's fears to get elected," said Mr. Fraser, the current Minneapolis mayor. "But everyone in police work knows that's not the long-term answer, and even in the short term it won't have much impact."