For months, George Bush’s campaign, aided by the oft-repeated saga of freed felon Willie Horton, has denounced Michael S. Dukakis as a friend of prison furloughs who is soft on crime.
On Tuesday, Dukakis’ designated deputy shot back.
First, Lloyd Bentsen unboxed the live ammunition, raising an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to his shoulder and calmly pumping three rounds to the gut of a silhouetted target mounted on a post at a police academy here.
Ranch Stocked With Guns
“I plan on bagging a Quayle” on Election Day, he boasted, clearly referring to Republican vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle. Bentsen added that his South Texas ranch is stocked with “rifles, shotguns and pistols.”
Then came the verbal salvo, as the Democratic vice presidential candidate accused Republican presidential candidate Bush of “playing politics with the victims of crime” and not owning up to the Administration’s own failings.
Under a Reagan Administration-backed federal furlough program, he said, some 15,000 felons were released last year. About 7,000 of those, he said, had been convicted of drug charges--"some of the most dangerous of criminals.”
Moreover, he charged, the Administration has sought “either to cut or do away with every federal assistance to local law enforcement.”
"(Bush) has to assume some responsibility,” Bentsen told a polite but impassive audience of police cadets. “He’s been the second man in government as vice president. He has to acknowledge it.”
Cites Furlough Incident
The speech marked the first time Bentsen had broached the subject of Horton, the first-degree murderer who attacked a Maryland couple, raping the woman, while free on furlough from a Massachusetts prison. Bentsen’s choice of subject matter suggested that the Democratic campaign has recognized that the issue has become too potent to ignore.
A Los Angeles Times Poll this week suggested that three months of Republican attacks, which have focused principally on crime, have taken their toll on Democratic presidential nominee Dukakis, sending his unfavorable rating soaring from 18% in June to 45% last week.
Questioned on NBC’s “Today” show earlier Tuesday about the Republican strategy, Dukakis labeled the attacks “pathetic” and said: “To use these human tragedies for your own political purposes, I think, is really a very crass and cynical thing.”
But it was Bentsen, breaking away from his customary role as the traveling echo of Dukakis’ daily message, who focused on issues of crime and drugs on a swing through Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“You take the case that George Bush is talking about, and that one happened,” Bentsen acknowledged in his speech here, referring to the Horton episode.
“But that one happened under the furlough law that was assumed by Michael Dukakis when he came in as the new governor.
“And Mike Dukakis, as governor of that state, took the responsibility,” Bentsen said. He noted that Dukakis “also changed the law so you don’t have first-degree murderers qualifying for that kind of thing.”
“That’s what George Bush has to start doing,” Bentsen said, “taking some of that responsibility.”
Bush, he said, was “finally acknowledging” that the federal furlough program should be reviewed, but he noted the Republican candidate’s silence about the Administration’s effort “to cut back materially” aid to local law enforcement agencies.
Promises to Restore Funds
A Bentsen aide, Victoria Radd, said a Dukakis Administration would restore to $225 million an anti-narcotics aid package cut last year under Administration pressure to $75 million. Dukakis would also restore aid aimed at preventing juvenile delinquency, she said.
Bentsen returned to the campaign trail after a day of rest still notably delighted with the public response to his performance in last week’s vice presidential debate and optimistic about Dukakis’ debate prospects in Los Angeles Thursday.