George W. Bush puts on his reading glasses, and peers over Zach Benton's shoulder. The middle-schooler from Royal Oak, Mich., punches in bloodandguts.com on the school computer and gets an immediate response: "This Web site cannot be accessed."
"Very good briefing," Governor Bush says, an affirmation of his proposal to filter the content on school computers.
For the Texas governor's presidential campaign, it's all in a day's work, wooing parents - 38 percent of likely voters - in one of the most closely contested states in the country.
But the scene is also symbolic of an extraordinary shift in approach for a Republican. Unlike the GOP's more recent presidential candidates, who rarely if ever ventured into parenting issues, Bush is telling the moms and dads of America that he wants to be their ally.
His glossy, five-page handout called "Tools for Parents" lays out dozens of proposals, many of them designed to give parents more time with their families and help keep children from harmful influences.
Vice President Al Gore, too, offers a multipoint plan to help families - including an array of tax credits, expanded family-leave rights, and universal preschool.
And like Bush, rarely a day goes by when the Democratic nominee doesn't put in a campaign appearance at a school. But this is expected behavior from a Democrat, the party that traditionally holds that Washington can be a force for good, even in the home.
"The reality out there is that families are struggling with balancing work and family life, and politicians recognize that," says Isabel Sawhill, a family policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Offering some kind of assistance really resonates with the public, especially women, who are a huge constituency."
This year, the parties recognize that the parents' vote is more than just "soccer moms": Many men with children also identify themselves strongly as parents. And for both sexes, parenting issues can be voting issues.
In a poll released this week by the New York-based National Parenting Association, 50 percent of fathers and 54 percent of mothers say that being a parent is one of the two principal influences on their vote. "Balancing work and family" and "instilling moral values" are their major concerns.
Other polls show Bush may be doing something right: While he's losing the women's vote overall, among mothers with children at home under 18, he's beating Mr. Gore 47 to 43 percent, according to the latest Pew Research Center poll. Among fathers, Bush is ahead 50 percent to 35 percent.
Pew survey analyst Michael Dimock notes that there may be generational factors related to how people in their 30s and 40s vote besides the fact that they have children at home.
But the bottom line is that Bush is doing better among that age group than among younger and older voters.
While both Gore and Bush profess the same goal - helping parents - a survey of their family policies reveals striking differences, areas of general agreement, and some ironic twists.
On the subject of Internet filtering, Bush sounds much like a Democrat. He would require libraries and schools that receive federal funding to install filters (locally selected) to protect children from harmful Internet content.
Gore aims harder at the issue of local control: He proposes that any school or library that applies for discounted "e-rate" Internet access come up with its own filtering plan.
Who gets the tax cuts?
On taxes, Bush sounds the traditional Republican theme of giving people their own money back, for them to spend as they see fit. By cutting all income tax rates, reducing the marriage penalty, and doubling the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000 per child, he says that would free up families' financial options, perhaps allowing one parent to stay home or cut back to part-time work.
Gore's tax cuts, meanwhile, are aimed more at the lower end of the income scale than Bush's. While both candidates are cutting taxes by about $500 billion over nine years for families making less than $100,000, under Bush's plan, two-thirds of that cut goes to those making between $50,000 and $100,000 a year.
In targeting lower-income Americans, Gore offers credits to 30 million Americans who have small or no tax liabilities. He also proposes about 30 targeted tax cuts aimed at promoting retirement savings, healthcare, education, and the environment.
"They're appealing to slightly different groups of parents - Gore more to the working-class, lower-income folks, Bush to the solidly suburban," says Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute and former head of the Congressional Budget Office under the Democrats. "There's nothing wrong with that. It depends on where you think the swing vote is."
One area of contention between the two parties is over how to allow private-sector employees small amounts of time off for family needs. Gore wants to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover smaller businesses and to give workers more time off for emergencies or school needs.
Bush wants to amend the Fair Labor Stands Act to grant employers the option of compensating an employee for overtime work in time off rather than overtime pay. Bush pitches the proposal as a way to allow parents to have more time with their families, if they don't need the extra money.
Democrats, backed by the labor movement, say this plan would eliminate an important right to overtime pay and provide no guarantee that an employee could take time off when needed.
Differences on day care
In the end, one of the biggest philosophical differences between the two candidates centers on the question of day care.
In the first debate, the issue came up and Bush pointed out the Republican desire is to support stay-at-home mothers. His campaign proposals contain far less money for dependent care - either as tax credits or subsidies - than Gore's do.
Gore, in response, notes that he is proposing a tax credit for stay-at-home mothers. But Gore also is proposing added spending for after-school care. And he believes the government should fund preschool for all four-year-olds - not on Bush's agenda.
Not only would universal preschool enhance school readiness, Democrats argue, it would also provide a tremendous day-care benefit for working parents.
Beyond the two candidates' positions, the Republicans may also get a boost on family issues in this campaign simply by having a younger candidate - a family man in his 50s, with twin daughters just out of high school. Bush is the youngest Republican nominee since Richard Nixon in 1960.
Four years ago, Republican nominee Bob Dole - whose only child was already middle-aged and whose current wife, Elizabeth Dole, never had children - didn't look as comfortable kissing babies as Bush does. Bush, in contrast, comes from one of America's premier political families, famous for its image as a close-knit clan.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society