NOT SO LONG ago, Republicans swore to cut government and Democrats scarcely dared resist. Nowadays the Republican front-runner for the presidency admonishes his government-cutting party colleagues not to go too far and Democrats propose expansions of government social programs. Last week both candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Al Gore and Bill Bradley, laid out their ideas for attacking child poverty. Mr. Bradley's speech was perhaps the most ambitious on this subject by any presidential candidate in the past 30 years.

Mr. Bradley promises to haul 3 million children out of poverty in his first term in office and another 4 million in his second. That would mean cutting child poverty in half, which would move America's child-poverty rate nearer to that common in most industrialized nations. It is a huge and profoundly worthwhile challenge. By offering precise targets, Mr. Bradley has set down markers by which his administration could be judged if he were elected.

Mr. Bradley stands out for his bold goals, but the details of his proposals are not substantially different from those of Mr. Gore. Mr. Bradley would raise the minimum wage, as Mr. Gore would, though he promises to lock in future raises by indexing the minimum wage to the pay of the median worker. Next, Mr. Bradley would make the earned income tax credit for poor workers more generous, continuing a bipartisan trend of recent years. Mr. Bradley also aims to decrease nonpayment of child support by absentee fathers. This was the main focus of Mr. Gore's recent speech on poverty.

In part, the focus on poverty reflects the closeness of the Democratic nomination race: Both candidates are competing for support from the liberal base of the party. In part, too, the new anti-poverty drive reflects prosperity: The expectation of budget surpluses in the next few years makes it possible to propose new programs without sounding fiscally irresponsible. These factors could easily fade. Once the primaries are over, the Democratic victor will start speaking to centrist voters. And the surplus is in large part an illusion, as the current budget negotiations in Congress have begun to make clear.

There also may be a third factor behind the renewed focus on poverty, and it is paradoxical. The enactment of welfare reform in 1996, which had the bad effect of risking a steep rise in child poverty, had at least the good effect of disarming those who had made careers of deriding the prior program. This opened the way for a renewed antipoverty crusade to become politically viable. Now that welfare reform has passed, it is harder to blame big government for fueling poverty by creating a culture of dependency. On the contrary, the need for public interventions that do not weaken incentives to work has become obvious.

Both Mr. Bradley and Mr. Gore have grasped this point. They regard jobs as the best antipoverty program and seek mainly to help those who remain poor even though they are working. "The foundation of our effort should be the guarantee that no one who works full time, year round, should have to live in poverty," Mr. Bradley declared. We hope that this sentiment catches on, whatever happens to the candidate.