Five of the nine Republicans running for president showed up in Washington Friday at a conference of the Home School Legal Defense Association with similar messages: Big government should keep its nose out of the growing movement's business.

Gary Bauer promised that as president, the home schoolers would have a "reliable friend" in the White House. Steve Forbes said: "No parent in America should be forced to send their child to a lousy school. Period." Patrick J. Buchanan, Alan Keyes and Texas Gov. George W. Bush also spoke, as did independent New Hampshire Sen. Robert C. Smith.

"We view home schooling as something to be respected and something to be protected," Bush told the crowd of several hundred people, adding that home schooling should be "respected for the energy and commitment of loving mothers and loving fathers. Protected--protected--from the interference of government."

Even though Bush's message was fundamentally similar to the other candidates', it drew the ire of Democrats. Bush has proposed holding public schools accountable for student achievement--if a school fails to meet state standards, it would lose federal funding.

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Patricia Ewing said it was inconsistent for Bush to push a federal accountability plan, yet not demand the same for home-schooled children. "Here you have two very different sets of standards: The idea that he would hold public schoolchildren highly accountable and then entirely let off the hook an entire set of children is wrong," she said.

But Bush pointed out in his speech that home-schooled children fare better on standardized test than other students. Bush spokesman Andrew Sullivan said the Texas governor was being consistent because his goal is to give parents a range of options, of which home schooling is one.

McCain Says Bush Errs on Military Money

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who will officially announce his GOP presidential candidacy Monday, took issue with another Bush proposal: to boost military spending by billions of dollars.

What the military needs is not a major infusion of money, said McCain, signing copies of his new book, "Faith of My Fathers," at a downtown Boston bookstore Friday. "Instead, it needs to be restructured for efficiency and to me the new demands of a post-Cold War era.

"I believe that Governor Bush's speech left out an important part of the equation," said McCain, a Vietnam War hero, according to Reuters. "That is that we have to restructure the military, we have to close bases, we have to contract-out maintenance and other repair work to civilian contractors to save money, and we've got to stop the pork-barrel spending."

Bush said in a speech at the Citadel in South Carolina on Thursday that among other things he would commit $20 billion over five years to research and development of high-tech weaponry.

Bradley Ads Push Words, Not Pictures

Democrat Bill Bradley, playing off his I'm-not-your-typical-pol theme, begins running ads in New Hampshire and Iowa this week promising policy positions over pretty pictures.

"Wouldn't it be refreshing to have more than sound bites and photo ops when you're choosing a candidate for president?" the first newspaper ad asks. "On a regular basis I will present advertising on a specific issue."

In the text, the former senator and professional basketball player invites voters to call or e-mail his campaign for more information on his views.

"Today the reality is a candidate needs advertising to win. But hopefully more advertising will give you more than just a pretty face to look at," the ad concludes. "A different campaign. It can happen."

Quotable

President Clinton speaking to the Democratic Business Council on Friday about Bush's record fund-raising: "You know, my economy has made it possible for those Republicans to give George Bush all that money."

Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.

CAPTION: George W. Bush, one of five candidates at home-school session.