`And if elected, will you care about kids?'

THE politician on the Children's Defense Fund poster strikes a typical campaign pose: kissing a baby for the benefit of news photographers and potential voters. But underneath his photo, the poster asks a not-so-typical campaign question: ``Don't you wish politicians cared as much about children after they're elected?''

That's the message the advocacy group is promoting these days as part of its nationwide campaign to make children a central issue in this year's elections. Through posters and a booklet, entitled ``What every American should be asking political leaders in 1988,'' the organization is urging voters to press candidates for answers to these and other questions:

1. What steps would you take to prevent and eliminate child hunger in America?

2. What policies would you propose to meet the widespread and growing need for safe, affordable, and quality child care in this country?

3. Do you support parental leave?

4. What specific policies would you propose to reduce the infant mortality rate in the United States?

A similar effort is underway at the Child Welfare League of America, where the Children's Presidential Campaign '88 seeks to remind presidential hopefuls of the need for adequate health care, housing, child care, and nutrition for all families. Between March 1 and March 10, the group hopes to persuade voters to send candidates small wooden ``planks'' bearing the message, ``Put a plank in your platform for children.''

``We're just trying to talk it up for children,'' explains Mark Riley, director of the children's campaign. ``Children are in trouble in this country, and have been for a number of years.'' He is encouraged by initial response to the project, which he says ``has taken off in a big way. People are ready to mobilize and to make a difference.''

These groups are not alone in their attempts to mobilize voters. Last week Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado concluded her Great American Family Tour, a political road show organized to put family and children's issues high on candidates' agendas.

In addition, on May 14, a coalition of women's, civil rights, religious, and union groups will gather in Washington for an American Family Celebration to call for a national family policy. Among industrialized nations, only the US and South Africa lack such a policy.

Collectively, these public-education efforts offer encouraging evidence that family issues are beginning to move from the life-style pages to Capitol Hill. Both a parental-leave bill and a child-care bill, for instance, are now before Congress.

Still, massive social problems persist. Families account for nearly one-third of the nation's homeless population. Some 13 million US children remain poor. Millions more in moderate-income families find themselves child-care poor, housing poor, and health-insurance poor.

All 10 men currently running for president are fathers. Among them, they have a total of 33 children - domestic credentials that should create a built-in sensitivity to the needs of families. Many of them have, in fact, spoken in favor of child care, health care, and nutrition programs.

But as Representative Schroeder pointed out during her family tour, none of the candidates has included the family in a stump speech. Unless it's there, she argues, it's not a priority.

Until the family does become a higher priority politically, these groups will keep reminding politicians and voters alike of the need to reorder national priorities. As the Children's Defense Fund points out, ``The United States is first in the developed world in exporting arms, but 19th in keeping our babies alive in the first year of life.''

Riley underscores the urgency of family issues by saying simply, ``Kids can't wait any longer.''

The Children's Defense Fund poster puts it another way: ``Kids can't vote. You can.''

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