CARROLL, Iowa — As she waited for Bruce Babbitt's campaign van to nose into this tiny farm town, Kathy Richardson, a pediatric nurse, talked excitedly about why after a lifetime of political uninvolvement she had become the county co-chairwoman for the presidential campaign of an ex-governor from Arizona.
"Babbitt was the first candidate to make children's issues a cornerstone of his campaign," she said. "Those are things I care very deeply about."
The Democrats have found a new button to push in their ongoing quest to regain the trust of middle-class voters--kids.
"So help me, I think the problems of our children is an issue just waiting for someone to light a spark with," Babbitt told a group of teachers here in Carroll. "This is an issue that lacked a constitutency for way too long. But I think there is a real chance that 1988 is going to be a year about children. People are ready to respond."
As Babbitt and almost every other major candidate in the crowded race for the Democratic presidential nomination has quickly learned, children and education are hot topics on the campaign trail this year.
So hot, in fact, that Friday night at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the seven Democratic candidates will take part in a back-to-school debate devoted solely to education, the first single-issue debate of the campaign involving the Democratic field.
Two Republican contenders, New York Rep. Jack Kemp and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, will square off in a separate education debate in Chapel Hill Friday night as well.
It's easy to see why children's issues are politically fashionable. Millions of those long-sought baby-boomer voters are having children of their own, and are worried about day care and the cost and quality of education.
"These are issues that have potency with voters," says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who has recently conducted a nationwide poll on the subject for KidsPac, a political action committee concerned with children's issues.
Polls show that a broad range of voters would support increased spending--and even higher taxes--targeted directly at new programs for children. The Democrats believe they have hit upon a way to promote liberal social policies without talking directly about welfare and abortion, issues that often raise red flags among the millions of moderate and conservative voters the Democrats hope to woo back to the fold in 1988.
Education Secretary William J. Bennett on Tuesday charged that the Democrats are embracing costly programs of unproven value. Several Republican candidates, including Vice President George Bush and Kemp, have embraced alternatives that would involve tax breaks for parents financing children's education and tougher standards for teachers.
But many of those proposals have gone nowhere during the Reagan Administration, and now the Democrats sense an opportunity to regain the initiative on the domestic front from the Reaganites.
"The candidates are discovering that it is possible to . . . reorder the debate over the domestic agenda by talking about children," notes Michael McCurry, Babbitt's press secretary. "This is a way to recapture family issues for the Democrats," said David Wilhelm, Iowa campaign coordinator for Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.).
So far, the candidates are finding that day care and college costs are the issues that strike the most responsive cords, especially in Iowa, a state that takes great pride in its educational system. Political organizers also hope the issues will help their candidates tap into a cadre of activist nurses, day care providers and teachers in Iowa who could prove helpful on Feb. 8, the day of the crucial Iowa precinct caucuses.
Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, campaigning at Iowa State University and the University of Iowa over Labor Day, unveiled a new proposal to create an "educational insurance program," a sort of reverse Social Security, that would help students cope with college bills.
The Dukakis plan would create a revolving federal fund that would pay the tuition bills of any student who couldn't otherwise afford college. Unlike Social Security, however, which requires pre-payments from wage earners before they can draw upon their retirement income, students would pay back into the fund after graduation through a payroll withholding plan geared to their incomes.
In an attempt to recruit more and better students to the teaching profession, Dukakis also proposed a $250-million fund that would, among other things, give college scholarships to students who agree to become teachers for at least five years.
"I know of nothing the President of the United States can do that's more important than put the enormous prestige of his office behind this," Dukakis insisted in his speech at the University of Iowa.