With about 2,200 people on death row and polls showing support for the death penalty at an all-time high, several hundred opponents are meeting here this weekend to try to turn the political tide.

"One reason for the change in public attitudes is irresponsible leadership by our politicians," said Max Stern, a leading Boston defense attorney and organizer of the meeting of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.The regional conference begins Friday night at Harvard Law School.

On Saturday, the coalition plans to honor Gov. Michael Dukakis for his refusal to abandon his longtime opposition to the death penalty for political gain, Stern said.

Dukakis' presidential campaign last year was deeply wounded by charges that he was soft on crime.

A Gallup poll in December, one month after the election, found that 79 percent of Americans favored the death penalty for murderers. That was 9 percent more than in 1986 and the highest percentage since pollsters began asking the question in 1936, a Gallup spokeswoman said.

The poll also showed a dramatic shift since 1966, when 47 percent of those polled by Gallup opposed the death penalty and only 42 percent supported it.

Stern and other abolitionists said the 1988 presidential campaign, which made murderer Willie Horton a household name, has left politicians across America afraid to buck public opinion.

"It's an expedient political tactic to take a very repressive view on the death penalty, and then attack one's opponent by associating him with heinous criminals," Stern said. "That's the Willie Horton tactic."

Although the tactic was used very effectively by President Bush's campaign against Dukakis, Stern predicted it will soon lose its potency.

Horton fled from Massachusetts during a prison furlough in 1987 and later brutally attacked a couple in Maryland, where he is now serving a lengthy prison sentence. The case was the subject of Bush campaign ads attacking Dukakis and supporting the death penalty.