Foes call Obama soft on crime

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - On a Web site he calls, Floyd G. Brown, the producer of the "Willie Horton" ad that helped to defeat Michael Dukakis in 1988, is preparing an encore.

Brown is raising money for a series of ads that he says will show Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois to be out of touch on an issue of fundamental concern to voters: violent crime.

One spot already on the Internet attacks the presumptive Democratic nominee for opposing a bill while he was an Illinois legislator that would have extended the death penalty to gang-related murders.

"When the time came to get tough, Obama chose to be weak. ... Can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?" the video asks.

Though crime has taken a back seat in the presidential race to the war in Iraq and the economy, some Republicans think that Obama is vulnerable on this issue - and they hope to inject it into the campaign.

Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona have some sharply different views on crime, but in truth, the job of president has little to do with day-to-day law enforcement.

The vast amount of crime-fighting in the U.S. is done at the state and local level. Moreover, the rate of violent crime nationally is at its lowest point in more than a decade.

Critics say the issue of crime is used primarily to exploit voter fears and stir up prejudices. Richard M. Nixon's pledge during the 1968 campaign to restore law and order was viewed as a subtle appeal to white racial prejudice. The "Willie Horton" ad that made Brown famous focused on a black Massachusetts felon who raped a woman while on weekend furlough from prison. Dukakis was governor at the time and supported the furlough program.

"Presidents don't deal with crimes. Governors and mayors deal with crimes," said James Allen Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University. "These are relatively fringe issues for presidents. Yet they certainly resonate when it comes to the electorate."

Brown is counting on that resonance. "There are many, many different votes that Barack Obama has taken over the course of his state Senate career that are going to show him to be absolutely missing in action when it comes to the question of controlling violent crime," Brown said in an interview. "We are going to stick with this issue. If he thinks it is not a significant issue, then he should talk to Michael Dukakis."

Brown and Bruce Hawkins, a Republican strategist who works with him, said such ads are legitimate because, by stimulating a debate on crime and punishment, they could provide a window into the personal morality of a candidate.

Obama's campaign, and some independent observers, say Brown's work is misleading at best. The political watchdog firm has called the death penalty ad - which suggests the vote Obama cast made him responsible for three minority youths who lost their lives in gang-related violence - "reprehensible misrepresentation."

The legislation was largely symbolic because many gang killers were already eligible for death under state law. It also was running up against concern about the administration of the state death penalty law that ultimately led to a statewide moratorium on executions. Republican Gov. George Ryan eventually vetoed it.

Obama supporters take exception to the notion that their candidate is weak on crime.

"I thought ... he tried to strike a decent balance between solid law enforcement and protecting the rights of individuals," said Richard A. Devine, the Cook County state's attorney, who leads the largest prosecutions office in Illinois.

While in the state legislature, Obama led the push for mandatory taping of interrogations and confessions to ensure fair treatment of the accused. Devine said he agreed with Obama that the gang-related death-penalty bill that the new ad targets was "really not moving us forward at all."

"The Republicans will soon realize that trying to divert attention from McCain's plans to continue George Bush's failed policies on Iraq and the economy by launching long-ago-debunked attacks on Obama won't work," said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt when asked about the new video. "Senator Obama has a record that demonstrates he is both tough and smart on crime."

For his part, McCain has embraced much of the "tough on crime" rhetoric of the past 25 years, including strict sentences for convicted criminals and a focus on the rights of victims.

Obama appears more interested in addressing what he sees as the root causes of crime, and even doing away with or modifying laws that set mandatory minimum sentences such as those in drug cases.

"We will review these sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of nonviolent offenders," he said in a speech at Howard University in Washington in September.

Obama supported a recent move by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce the sentences of about 20,000 federal inmates, mostly black, imprisoned for dealing crack cocaine. McCain opposed the early release.

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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