WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.VA. -- As House Democrats met here during the weekend for their annual issues conference, the halls of the stately Greenbrier resort hotel were filled with the kind of plea that knows no party: "Daddy, let's go bowling!"
For the 131 lawmakers who attended, the chorus of little voices ringing through the Greenbrier provided a kind of theme music for a conference devoted to family issues.
It may have been the subject at hand, or the presence of Bill Cosby, but for whatever reason, this year's retreat was taken over by the kids, 180 of them. They made a merry mess of the special Amtrak train on the way out, they took over the skating rink and pool at the hotel, and they all got Cosby's autograph.
House members who often complain that their job keeps them away from their families got a chance to make amends. As did some reporters like Andy Plattner of U.S. News and World Report, who recently has spent more time in Iowa with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) than he has with his son Jacob and twin girls Margaret and Rachel.
But if it seemed like winter camp for the kids, it was serious business for the Democrats, who are looking to family issues to carry them out of the Reagan era and into the White House.
Issues such as day care, parental leave, prenatal health, infant mortality and welfare reform are expected to be high on the congressional agenda this year. And some expect the issues to be a prominent part of the presidential campaign, although it has yet to develop as fully as expected.
To varying degrees, Democrats believe "kids' issues" can help them reclaim constituencies lost to President Reagan and the GOP and wrest the subject from Republicans who have made "family values" their war cry.
"I think this is where the future of the Democratic Party lies," said Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, arguing that by embracing the gamut of family issues, the party can "rediscover its roots."
That Democrats could dare to devote their conference to the subject in a presidential year "is a major signal that this issue has arrived," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families.
For all that, plenty of disagreement was aired about whether Democrats can seize the high ground on family issues without leaving themselves open to the charge they want to return to the days of grandiose social programs that don't fit into an era of fiscal austerity.
Children's Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman argued that major strides can be achieved in decreasing infant mortality, immunizing children against disease, and educating preschoolers at relatively little cost.
"We treat the well-to-do dead better than we do the poor who are alive," said Edelman.
Some of the politicians here, however, suggested that the issue had to be finessed with a different vocabulary.
Clinton said Democrats can take advantage of the country's "obsession with economic issues" by preaching that children's programs are a good investment that save money in the long run.
Miller said the key is talking "about these issues in hard, political terms, not just bleeding heart terms -- the language has changed. What it really sends is the message of the real cost of neglecting these programs . . . . You can sell this at the Chamber of Commerce."
But some of the strategists who spoke to the conference were less sanguine.
Ethel Klein, a Columbia University professor specializing in public opinion and public policy, said the good news for Democrats is that the electorate wants a more activist government after Reagan, but the bad news is that they don't think the Democrats are the ones to do it.
Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg had a more combative stance, arguing that Democrats should take the issue right to the GOP or risk having it "depoliticized."
Greenberg said most voters feel relatively secure about their present condition, but fear the future and what it holds for their children and themselves. Voters' gnawing uncertainty gives Democrats an opportunity, Greenberg said.
But conservative commentator Kevin Phillips dismissed the Democrats' fixation on family issues as "a reaffirmation of the Democratic Party's instinct for the capillaries."
However, the lawmakers who met here passed what could have been the severest test of their commitment to the family, although more through luck than virtue.
It occured on Friday night, when it looked like the broadcast of the heavyweight title fight between Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson might conflict with the family bowling party.
But Tyson knocked Holmes senseless in the fourth round, just in time for the parents to make it to the bowling alley.