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.

Where Nutter regularly excoriates Street over rising crime, Fattah avoids criticism of city leaders, noting that many cities struggle with crime. Instead, he used his announcement to tout continuing non-police efforts, such as a gun-buyback program he sponsors, and even praised programs championed by his opponents.

"I am seriously trying to take the politics out of it," Fattah said in an interview Friday. "You will find that I have never utilized tragedy as a basis for publicity."

Pollster Ronald Lester, who did a survey last fall for the Philadelphia Tribune that listed crime as the top concern among African American voters, said Fattah's tone was more likely to resonate.

"It's the long-term approach that's likely to be received by African American voters," Lester said. "A let's-just-lock-'em-up approach is not going to be well received."

Lester said that polling he had done in a Washington municipal campaign also suggested that black voters were more responsive to a different take on the standard politician's call to beef up the police force.

"Black voters tend to respond to ideas like, new police recruits need to spend a month in boys' and girls' clubs, to get to know neighborhoods," he said.

Nutter, though, said that his language and his proposal captured the feelings of people who actually live in the highest-crime areas, which are predominantly black.

"If you live in a hot spot and you're ducking bullets every day," Nutter said, "you're thinking, 'What is anyone doing?' "

Political strategist Neil Oxman, a veteran of Philadelphia elections who said he was not now working for any candidate, said he thought Fattah's rhetoric identified the congressman with the status quo - something Oxman said was a mistake no matter what changes his policy papers included.

"People are really angry right now," Oxman said. "This could be the Achilles' heel of the Fattah campaign. . . . No one, not African American and not white voters, thinks [Street] is doing a good job right now."

No candidate has made crime such a focus of his campaign as Evans, who entered the race last fall with an announcement that was almost entirely focused on crime.

On the stump, Evans has said that the main ingredient in combating the problem is finding the "political will" to make people believe it is possible to do so. He said his repeated mentions of Timoney do more than just highlight his embrace of change. They also, he said, remind voters of Evans' long history on the crime issue.

"I brought him here, under Rendell," Evans said. "I believe he didn't get the political support necessary to change the department. . . . I'm different because I'm telling you who's going to implement the plan."

Evans' long interest in anticrime efforts, though, has been a two-edged sword. He spoke frequently about it during a previous mayoral bid, in 1999, but made little headway at a time when the city's homicide rate was far lower than it is today.

Residents filing out of a candidates' forum in University City last week made it clear that, this time around, they would be paying close attention to the candidates' stances on crime.

"I've had a few friends who've been mugged just going to get Chinese food. It's what we all talk about," said Michael Taptykoff, a student. "They need to get into the 21st century with police."

Anticrime Plans

How the major declared and potential Democratic candidates for mayor would approach Philadelphia's crime problem:

State Rep. Dwight Evans, a longtime champion of anti-crime efforts who has pushed state legislators to enact stronger gun-control laws, has promised to lure former Police Commissioner John F. Timoney back to Philadelphia.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, who worked in antigang advocacy in the 1970s, has called for hundreds of new surveillance cameras to be placed in dangerous areas and more police to be tasked with finding illegal guns.

Businessman Tom Knox has yet to roll out a full anticrime policy agenda, but spent the summer circulating petitions across the city calling on state legislators to act against handguns. His spokeswoman said a full policy paper was on its way.

Former Councilman Michael Nutter, who fought to increase the size of the police force while on Council, wants a state of emergency that allows police to frisk illegal gun suspects in high-crime areas.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady has not declared his candidacy, but if he does, aides promise that crime will be a major concern. Last summer, he convened a summit of city leaders on the issue.

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