WASHINGTON — On a website he calls ExposeObama.com, Floyd G. Brown, the producer of the Willie Horton ad that helped defeat Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, is preparing an encore.
Brown is raising money for a series of ads that he says will show Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to be out of touch on an issue of fundamental concern to voters: violent crime. One spot already making the rounds on the Internet attacks the presumptive Democratic nominee for opposing a bill while he was a state 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 ad asks.
Though in this presidential race crime has taken a back seat to the war in Iraq and the economy, some Republicans think Obama is vulnerable on the 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 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 has been declining for more than a decade.
Critics say the issue of crime is used primarily to exploit voter fears and stir up prejudices. Richard 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 GOP consultant 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 program.
"Presidents don't deal with crimes. Governors and mayors deal with crimes," said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Boston's 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 asserted in an interview.
He added: "If he thinks it is not a significant issue, then he should talk to Michael Dukakis."
Conservative strategists say such ads can provide a window into a candidate's personal morality. The issue of violent crime also is germane, they say, because of Bush administration efforts to steer more federal money to states for anti-terrorism programs rather than traditional crime-fighting ones, a policy that has riled many cash-strapped state and local governments.
Obama's campaign, and some independent observers, say Brown's work is misleading at best. FactCheck.org, a political watchdog, has called the death penalty ad -- which suggests that Obama's vote made him responsible for the gang-related deaths of three youths -- "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 over the administration of the state death penalty law. That concern ultimately led to a statewide moratorium on executions. The Republican governor at the time, George Ryan, eventually vetoed the legislation.
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 prosecutor office in Illinois. In the Legislature, Obama led the push for mandatory taping of interrogations and confessions to ensure fair treatment of the accused.
Devine said the gang-related death-penalty bill was "really not moving us forward at all."
Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt, asked about the ad, said: "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. Sen. Obama has a record that demonstrates he is both tough and smart on crime."
McCain, for his part, has mostly embraced the tough-on-crime" stance of the last 25 years, including strict sentencing 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.