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Eager to distinguish themselves to voters, Democratic leaders in Congress and President Clinton have independently announced a set of campaign proposals designed to appeal to working families.

Congressional Democrats last month unveiled the "Families First" agenda they said they will push if they regain leadership of Congress.

Viewed as a response to the Republican's 1994 Contract With America, the Democrats' center-leaning 21-point campaign plan includes many proposals targeted at middle-income families--such as tax credits for child-care expenses and a $1,500 tax credit for college students who stay off drugs and maintain good grades.

The plan also calls on health insurers to create "kids only" health plans that would continue to cover children even if their parents are not insured.

These ideas are "modest and achievable," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., in a statement following the plan's release.

"It's not about big-government handouts," he said. "It's merely an attempt to help families earn more security for themselves in this tough new economy."

Democratic leaders also pledged to support drug-education and gang-prevention efforts to "clean drugs out of our schools and to get kids off the street before they start causing trouble."

While many children's advocates are heartened by the prominent role children's issues are playing in this year's campaigns, Republican leaders derided the Democrats' plan as little more than predictable election-year hype.

Haley Barbour, the Republican National Committee chairman, said in a statement that Democrats are trying to hijack GOP proposals and claim them as their own in an attempt to hide their liberal agenda.

"It's a con job," Mr. Barbour said. "But the American people won't be fooled by this cynical election-year deception."

Though President Clinton has not formally endorsed the entire Families First plan, he spent much of last month touting several family-oriented initiatives of his own.

The president proposed revising the Family and Medical Leave Act, adding provisions that would allow workers to take a maximum of 24 working hours off without pay each year to attend to family commitments such as parent-teacher conferences or children's medical appointments.

He also proposed changing the labor laws to allow employees to work up to 80 hours of overtime in exchange for paid time off--a plan that Republicans say they came up with first.

Mr. Clinton also said recently that his administration would step up efforts to locate parents who don't pay child support. The Department of Health and Human Services is setting up a tracking system to help coordinate the identification of delinquent parents in the 25 states that do not already track such parents.

The president also plans to require that states solicit more information about absentee fathers who have children on welfare. HHS is currently revising its rules in an effort to direct states to get more detailed information from mothers before they and their children can become eligible for government benefits.

Young Democrats of America kicked off its 40-state Democratic Youth Tour last month in Washington with a rally featuring Henry Cisneros, the secretary of housing and urban development.

It is the first time that Democrats have coordinated a state-by-state campaign to register and try to capture the youth vote. The bus tour will conclude next month at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The College Republican National Committee, meanwhile, held a leadership conference in Washington last month to teach 300 college students how to register and motivate young voters.

The participants will lead a nationwide drive to register 750,000 fellow students to vote.

And who will win the youth vote?

"We're the party to make reform," said Kiernan Harrington, the spokesman for the college Republicans. "Democrats are the party of status quo and don't offer changes that benefit our constituents."

"Yeah, they're reforming lots of things, right away from young people," replied Mark Nevins, the communications director for College Democrats of America.

The young Democrats set a goal of registering 1 million new voters.

Victor Morales, the Texas teacher who is challenging incumbent Republican Phil Gramm for his seat in the Senate, has pledged to forgo accepting money from political-action committees.

"I owe nobody except the people of Texas," Mr. Morales, a Democrat, told United Press International.

Mr. Morales recently opened his campaign office in Mesquite, outside of Dallas, two blocks from the high school where he taught government.


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