As poll after poll lists crime as the top concern of Philadelphia voters, the candidates in this spring's Democratic mayoral primary have responded with similar sets of policy prescriptions - while couching them in sharply contrasting language.

For former City Councilman Michael Nutter, the dominant theme is anger over the 406 homicides in the city last year.

"I stand here today as an outraged black man," Nutter said last week - more than half of the victims were African American men ages 18 to 40 - as he introduced a public-safety agenda that included significant calls to improve the lot of jobless youngsters. But he drew much more attention for an impassioned demand that Mayor Street declare a state of emergency that would allow police to frisk those suspected of carrying illegal guns.

For State Rep. Dwight Evans, the dominant themes are personnel and leadership.

Evans, who has focused on crime for much of his 25 years in Harrisburg, began his campaign with a vow to woo former Police Commissioner John F. Timoney back from Miami to run the department again, if he was elected mayor. But the details of Evans' platform, like Nutter's, involve a balance between stepped-up policing of illegal weapons and stepped-up economic development in high-crime areas.

And for U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, the dominant theme was help for the poor.

"It is not illegal guns, it is the absence of opportunity which is at the heart of" Philadelphia's crime problems, Fattah said when presenting his crime package this month. Nonetheless, Fattah's plan, too, calls for more police to target guns, and includes the suggestion that high-tech cameras be used to scrutinize just who might be carrying a weapon in public.

Businessman Tom Knox and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who has yet to declare his candidacy, have not yet unveiled large-scale crime plans. But they have grappled with the issue: Brady convened a high-profile summit on crime this summer, while Knox spent money on a petition drive urging new state gun laws.

When those candidates roll out policy platforms, strategists say, it is likely that they will have to strike the same balance between soft and tough approaches while striving for a unique way to discuss the issue.

"Unless candidates can differentiate themselves on the issue, it's not an issue people are going to vote on," political consultant Larry Ceisler said.

Ceisler said he believed the polls showing that crime is important to voters, but he doubted the issue would make a difference so long as candidates merely append it to other narratives, like Nutter's appeals to cut taxes, Evans' push to restore neighborhoods, or Fattah's and Knox's calls to expand economic opportunity.

Other campaign veterans, though, say candidates can turn crime into a defining issue. But they disagree about how.

Dan Fee, a consultant who worked with former City Controller Jonathan Saidel before he exited the race last fall, said the key was for a candidate to portray himself or herself as a change agent.

He said one person who appeared to be on the right track in that regard was Evans, who by injecting Timoney's name into the campaign invoked someone remembered as having sought to shake up the city's police force. A veteran of New York City's police who helped oversee that city's precipitous drop in crime during the 1990s, Timoney was commissioner here between 1998 and 2001, when crime rates, including homicide, fell. Since 2002, when there were 288 homicides in the city, the homicide rate has been climbing.

Fattah, by contrast, has said that he would look within the department to replace Johnson, who plans to retire at the end of Street's term.

Contact staff writer Michael Currie Schaffer at 215-854-4565 or mcschaffer@phillynews.com.