President Bush (search) is extending the political debate over values by citing evidence that strong families and communities are developing responsibility and character in the nation's children.  

Drug use and violent crime among teenagers have decreased dramatically, while children raised in households with married parents are less likely to live in poverty, the president said Saturday in his weekly radio address. He cited a newly issued government report to claim progress.

"My administration is acting to encourage teens to make healthy choices," Bush said.

Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry (search) are trying to define and dominate the debate on gay marriage, abortion, gun rights and other values issues.

The sparring has emerged along with the economy and the war in Iraq as a critical issue in the close presidential campaign, with some polls showing Americans evenly split on which candidate shares their personal values.

Kerry spokesman Phil Singer asserted that Bush "is ignoring the truth about children in this country," saying more youngsters have fallen into poverty, millions lack health insurance and education spending has fallen short of needs.

The report Friday by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics (search) said family life, education and health of America's children are generally improving, though child poverty has risen for the first time in a decade. Teenage smoking has declined, as have teen birth rates.

The Kerry campaign said Bush proposed cutting after-school programs by 40 percent, which would deny after-school services to more than a half-million children.

Bush highlighted his proposals to spend $23 million for drug testing in schools and $25 million to encourage schools to develop curricula promoting good character.

He said parents, schools and government can counter the negative influences in today's culture and send the right messages to children.

The culture of America is changing from one that said, "if it feeds good, do it; and if you've got a problem, blame somebody else," Bush said, using language reminiscent of his recent campaign speeches.

The values debate is seen as energizing Bush's strongest supporters, particularly in Republican-leaning rural America.