One thousand religious leaders rallied in a downtown Washington church yesterday, fervently signaling their intention to make the major presidential candidates address an agenda aimed at improving the plight of the working poor.

The activists agreed to a plan that urges the leading presidential candidates to speak to their proposals to establish a federal "living wage" bill, build hundreds of thousands of houses that low- and moderate-income working people could afford and set aside a portion of federal budget surpluses to provide social services in lean times.

Participants, who met at the National City Christian Church, represented 14 church-based community action groups that in total have tens of thousands of members and operate in East Coast cities, from Boston to the District.

"What the working poor need is an American living wage--a wage that will allow them to raise a family comfortably, buy a home, send their children to college and participate in public life," said the Rev. Douglas Miles, a Baltimore minister who addressed the meeting. "We do not need more charity or more marginal government programs."

Organizers of the multiracial and multidenominational rally said they plan to bus a couple hundred of their members to New Hampshire to confront the leading Republican and Democratic candidates with their agenda in the weeks before the Feb. 1 primary there. Members also plan to demonstrate at political fund-raisers to make their case--both to candidates and to those who provide financial support for campaigns.

The church-based groups represented at the rally are all affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national community organizing group whose strategic planning and in-your-face style have proven successful for decades. An IAF group began its first affordable housing campaign in Brooklyn in the early 1980s.

In recent years, the IAF organizations in several cities have pressured government leaders to pass "living wage" laws, which generally require institutions or firms that receive government contracts or subsidies to provide health benefits and pay workers a wage that will lift them out of poverty.

After IAF's initial success in Baltimore in 1994, some 37 such ordinances have passed in cities and counties across the country and 75 others are pending, IAF officials said.

IAF groups also have partnered with local governments to help build some 4,800 houses in cities from New York to Memphis, all of which are affordable to low-wage working people. And last year, the group's Maryland affiliates were instrumental in getting Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to set aside a portion of the state's budget surplus for future social service needs.

With those successes behind them, members of IAF-East now say they are ready to step onto the national stage.

"Local answers to local questions can become national answers to national questions," said the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, a leader of the Washington Interfaith Network, which represents 45 congregations across the city.

But IAF officials acknowledged that they have a difficult battle ahead. Proposals to increase the minimum wage frequently have faced strong opposition in Congress, although House Republican leaders have agreed to bring up this week a plan to raise it by $1 over a three-year period. Congressional Democrats would raise the wage by the same amount, to $6.15, but over two years.

Many moderate Democrats, however, oppose the idea of a living wage, which IAF leaders say is close to $8 per hour. The Democratic Leadership Council, a research group whose centrist philosophy is embraced by many "New Democrats," has said living wage proposals "don't make economic sense."