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Washington

Welfare reform took center stage in the presidential race last week when President Clinton applauded Wisconsin's ambitious welfare plan days before his Republican rival was set to deliver a similar endorsement.

The Wisconsin plan, considered one of the most revolutionary state welfare-reform proposals, would require recipients to work and would set time limits on welfare payments. The plan also advocates replacing the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program with a state-controlled block grant.

Though Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican, recently signed the reforms into law, the state must still earn federal approval to implement them. The proposal goes well beyond any reforms that have previously been approved under federal waivers.

In his weekly radio address on May 18, President Clinton stopped short of saying he would grant the necessary waiver, but praised Wisconsin for having "one of the boldest plans yet attempted in America."

In a speech in Fond Du Lac, Wis., several days later, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, issued his own kudos.

Joined by Gov. Thompson, Mr. Dole hailed his party for pushing welfare reform to the forefront of the nation's agenda and called the current system "liberalism's greatest shame."

Mr. Dole said that if he is elected president in November, he will push for time limits on benefits and allow states to bar payments to unwed teenage mothers--proposals White House aides later said the president had already endorsed. Mr. Dole also suggested that states be able to test welfare recipients for drug use.

The Kansas senator--who recently announced that he would leave office to concentrate on his presidential campaign--condemned the president's tactics.

"The White House spin machine has been in overdrive this weekend," Mr. Dole said, predicting that the president will not actually approve the waiver to allow Wisconsin to act.

Referring to Mr. Clinton's two vetoes of Republican welfare-reform bills, Mr. Dole added, "The Clinton administration has blocked any serious plan to end welfare as we know it."

Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett is apparently not too confident in the presumptive GOP nominee.

At a recent meeting of GOPAC, the conservative political-action committee once led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., Mr. Bennett reportedly said Mr. Dole will have a difficult time beating President Clinton in November.

"I don't think that campaign is coherent," Mr. Bennett said, according to USA Today. "I don't think it's hard-edged."

In particular, the former secretary said, Mr. Dole should trumpet conservatism. "We might be beat anyway, but I'd much rather be beat on principle than not," Mr. Bennett said.

Mr. Bennett's remarks came before Mr. Dole's May 15 announcement that he was resigning from the Senate.

President Clinton had the edge in a recent poll of young adults.

Of the 1,200 people between 18 and 24 who were polled, 48 percent said they were inclined to vote for the president for re-election. Thirty-three percent said they considered their support for Mr. Clinton "strong."

Mr. Dole received the backing of 31 percent of those polled; 19 percent said their support for the retiring Senate majority leader was "strong."

The remainder were undecided. The poll, which involved several high-profile political pollsters, has a margin of error of 2.5 percent.

It also found that 93 percent of the young adults favored increasing student financial aid.

Known as "Youth Voices," the poll was conducted by Lake Research, Research Strategy Management, and Buffalo Qualitative Research for the Center for Policy Alternatives and Who Cares magazine.

--Jessica Portner & Mark Pitsch

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