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Candidates Plan Debates as Duel On Crime Prevention Continues

By Maria L. La Ganga and Paul Richter
Los Angeles Times
VILLANOVA, Pa.

Standing at podiums 500 miles apart, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole took aim at the same target Monday, as the president picked up the endorsement of the biggest law enforcement union in the country and Dole vowed to cut teen drug use in half while doubling current spending on state prison construction.

Scourging the Clinton administration's record on violent crime and drug abuse, Dole told students at Villanova University, a predominately Catholic school here, that the president "talks like Dirty Harry but he acts like Barney Fife" - the bumbling deputy on the "Andy Griffith Show."

But in a half-day tour of southeastern Ohio, Clinton stole some of Dole's crime-fighting thunder, as he accepted the endorsement of the National Fraternal Order of Police - the first time the 270,000-member organization has backed a Democrat - and called himself a proven crime fighter.

The president received a government report early Monday morning before heading off to Cincinnati showing that gang prosecutions had more than doubled during his administration and that violence has dropped in America since he took office.

"For four years I've worked hard to stand with the police officers of America, and I am profoundly honored that they have decided to stand with me for four more years," Clinton said at his Cincinnati stop, before a human backdrop of uniformed officers.

As each candidate sought to turn the crime issue to his advantage, Clinton focused on the connection between crime and guns, while Dole sought to focus on crime and drugs.

Flanked by police officers in uniform, Clinton reminded his listeners of his administration's efforts to limit sales of assault-style weapons and to ban armor-piercing bullets - both opposed by the National Rifle Association, but supported by most police groups.

"We don't believe that police should be easily outgunned by gangs on the street," Clinton said. "That's why we took the assault weapons off the street and passed the Brady Bill and why we're against the cop killer bullets."

For his part, Dole cited statistics that show increased drug use among 12- to 17-year-olds. Dole asked: "Why, after so many years of progress, have we seen such backsliding? The fact is that the country is reaping the bitter harvest of what this administration's liberal policies have sowed While the administration has looked the other way on drugs, a tragic number of America's youth have gone the wrong way on crime."

The two campaigns remain divided on the number and timing of face-to-face debates. Originally, a bipartisan commission on debates recommended that a first debate be held in St. Louis Sept. 25. But the Clinton camp rejected that schedule because the president is set to address the opening of the United Nations on Sept. 24.

Dole's negotiators have proposed delaying the first debate one day, but a highly placed source in the Clinton camp said flatly in an interview Monday that while the president favors debates early next month, "there will be no debate" next week.

Meanwhile, both campaigns were awaiting a recommendation, expected from the bipartisan commission Tuesday, , on whether to include Ross Perot in the debates. Though the commission's recommendation is not binding, it is expected to be influential.

Dole has been seeking to expand his campaign message beyond the single drumbeat of a 15 percent tax cut. In Monday's speech, he linked economic poverty with the nation's "moral poverty" and pledged to "restore the sense of security and personal safety that once allowed communities in all parts of our nation to thrive. We want this country moving."

His five-point "action plan to combat drugs and violent crime," was relatively explicit: In a Dole administration, federal spending on state prison construction would jump from $405 million to $810 million. Violent criminals would spend more time behind bars and prisoners would work to pay restitution to their victims.

The presidency would again become a "bully pulpit" to combat drug use, Dole said, and violent juveniles charged with serious crimes would be tried as adults.

How Dole would fund this criminal crackdown - while cutting taxes and balancing the budget all at the same time - was far less clear.

Dole's plan had scarcely been outlined when Clinton aides were claiming that major elements of the crime-fighting message - longer sentences, more prison construction, tougher treatment of juvenile offenders - had been part of Clinton's agenda.