Top Democrats, seeking to tarnish Texas Gov. George W. Bush's reputation as a "compassionate conservative," are trumpeting the charge that Bush is heedless of hunger in his home state.

Joe Andrew, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, came to a breakfast of reporters yesterday armed with a clipping from last Saturday's Fort Worth Star-Telegram in which Bush challenged a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report that 5 percent of Texas households reported suffering from hunger in surveys taken between 1996 and 1998--the second-worst state percentage after Oregon.

The paper quoted Bush as saying he had seen the report but wondered "Where? . . . You'd think the governor would have heard if there are pockets of hunger in Texas."

Andrew charged that Bush's response "goes to the question of character. How could he simply deny there are hungry children in his state?"

Later, the DNC put out further information saying that the national survey, begun when Bush's father was president, had found a similar situation in 1997, two years after Bush became governor. At that time, Texas ranked 47th among the states in incidences of hunger.

Mindy Tucker, the Bush campaign's press secretary, noted that the same Star-Telegram article that the Democrats cited also included quotes from Bush saying, "I want to know the facts. No children are going to go hungry in this state. I would like for the Department of Agriculture to show us who, where are they, and we'll respond."

Tucker also said that in the last session of the legislature, Bush signed a $2 million appropriation for a nutrition education and outreach program, targeted specifically at low-income people. And she noted the governor's support for expanding tax deductions for gifts to faith-based organizations, many of which run their own feeding programs.

A Break for 'Good' Teachers

Continuing his effort to branch off his signature issue of campaign finance, Sen. John McCain is polishing a presidential campaign proposal he has for improving education--tax breaks for good teachers.

Aides are putting together a $1 billion plan to give the nation's best teachers a 25 percent credit on their federal income taxes, leaving a little more in their paychecks. As many as 1 million teachers would benefit, with savings of $1,000 on an income of $35,000, the average salary of teachers in public and private schools. Other details, including which tax loopholes would be closed to make up for the lost revenue, are due in mid-January.

"We want to reward excellence among the best teachers and encourage other teachers to reach toward that standard of excellence," said Dan Schnur, communications director for the McCain campaign.

To make it work, each state would have to create a new system for evaluating every teacher, a personnel matter now handled by local school districts. Schnur said teachers would have to pass a written test of knowledge in the subject they teach and also meet a state standard based on the achievement of their students. States might see the new responsibilities as a heavy burden, but McCain thinks it's one worth them carrying.

"The most important thing for us is to encourage states to put in a system of testing accountability for teachers, so we can reward the best ones," Schnur says.

An aide to George W. Bush said the plan had an unflattering resemblance to President Clinton's unsuccessful move to restrict college tuition tax credits to students with good grades. States would have to give results of the teacher evaluations to the IRS to prevent any teacher from claiming an excellent rating and the credit. "People need to be careful before handing out breaks . . . that create big roles for the IRS," the aide suggested.

Staff writer Kenneth J. Cooper contributed to this report.