Clinton aims to trump the right's crime crusade

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The Independent Online


America's next presidential election lies 16 months ahead, but from the way Bill Clinton is carrying on you could be forgiven for thinking that his battle for political survival is no less urgent than John Major's.

The President returned home to Washington at the weekend after a 10-day speech-making excursion through seven states where he raised $3m (pounds 2m) in campaign money. Last week he spent $2.4m on television commercials plugging the startling - but not unconvincing - message that his conservative opponents are soft on crime.

Never in US history has a White House incumbent begun a re-election campaign so early. Never in 30 years has a Democrat sought to wrest ownership of the law-and-order issue from the Republicans.

These are strange days in Washington. The Republicans, who not long ago were accusing the Democrats of favouring "criminals' rights", have found the boot is on the other foot. George Bush's most effective campaign tactic against Michael Dukakis in 1988 was a commercial about Willie Horton, a criminal who was released by Mr Dukakis when he was governor of Massachusetts and went on to commit a murder. Today Mr Clinton could use Timothy McVeigh, the man charged with the Oklahoma City bombing, to similar effect.

Mr McVeigh is a gun nut, a species which the Republicans in Congress, zealous to win favour with the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), are seeking to please.

Senator Bob Dole, Mr Clinton's likely Republican opponent next year, wants to repeal a law banning the sale of assault weapons. Mr Clinton has reminded voters in his television spots that it was he, repelled by the notion that you could buy an Uzi sub-machine gun along with your cornflakes at the supermarket, who introduced the law last year.

In Chicago on Friday Mr Clinton, flanked by uniformed police officers, proposed a ban on "cop-killer" bullets. "If a bullet can rip through a bullet-proof vest like a knife through hot butter, then it ought to be history."

Republicans, urged on by an angry NRA, are conspiring to stop Mr Clinton's plans. But the President has the police on his side. "This is the bill we've been waiting for," said Dewey Stokes, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. Mr Clinton has also won police support for a plan to increase the number of officers nationwide by 100,000.

Why is Mr Clinton campaigning so early? There are two reasons: the Republican presidential contenders, Mr Dole most notably, have been at the hustings since the beginning of the year; and Mr Clinton is, by common consent, a better campaigner than leader. The President is playing to his strengths.