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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, here in the United States, President Obama this afternoon will visit Connecticut as part of his ongoing push for new federal gun laws. The poster children for this campaign are, literally, that - children. The president has invited kids to the White House, to watch him sign new executive orders on guns. And the images of the children who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School are a constant reminder of the toll gun violence can take.

Right now, children are also central to campaigns on immigration, and also same-sex marriage. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on what makes children such effective political messengers.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In Miami in 1977, Anita Bryant started a campaign against gay rights. She gave her group a name that would resonate with parents in Florida, and around the country: Save Our Children.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED POLITICAL AD)

ANITA BRYANT: Please join us in voting for the human rights of children, voting for decency. Vote for repeal of Metro's dangerous homosexual ordinance.

SHAPIRO: Today, kids are still a key part of this debate. But more often, they show up on the other side - as part of the push for gay rights. When the Supreme Court heard arguments on same-sex marriage last month, Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out that California alone has some 40,000 kids living with two moms or two dads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SUPREME COURT HEARING)

JUSTICE ANTHONY KENNEDY: They want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case, don't you think?

SHAPIRO: On almost any issue, kids can make an argument more compelling. Elizabeth Wilner studies political advertising for the firm Kantar Media CMAG.

ELIZABETH WILNER: Kids are more of a blank canvas. The standard prejudices, and thoughts, people might bring to a particular issue tend to get left by the wayside when they're watching an ad that features a kid.

SHAPIRO: People can easily pass judgment on gays and lesbians, or condemn illegal immigrants. It's much harder to dismiss their children. Mark Fitzloff is an executive at the advertising firm Wieden + Kennedy.

MARK FITZLOFF: I think it immediately unfangs the opponent because what are you going to do? You're going to attack children. I mean, it's a smart chess move to anticipate your opponent's next move and pull the power out of it.

SHAPIRO: That's one reason the DREAM Act kids have been such an effective face of the immigration debate. They came to the United States illegally, through no fault of their own. And people have seen that message online more than half a million times, in this video.

(SOUNDBITE OF DREAM ACT VIDEO)

MARIO: I was like, wow, I don't have a Social Security number. That means I'm undocumented.

SHAPIRO: Republican political consultant Steve Green says kids also make an issue less abstract. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The consultant's name is Steve Grand, not Green.] Children make any controversy become real and relatable.

STEVE GRAND: Once you get to know someone's kids, all of sudden now, there's a personalization that takes place. In gay rights and in immigration, I think so many Americans didn't know anyone personally. All of a sudden now, oh, there's the gay family. But they have a kid, and the kid plays with my kid and, hmm, there's really nothing wrong with them. And in fact, I kind of like them.

SHAPIRO: Kids are also synonymous with innocence. Every person interviewed for this story brought up the phrase "innocent children." And that innocence can also be a useful tool, says Pippa Seichrist, president and founder of the Miami Ad School.

PIPPA SEICHRIST: Anything bad that happens is worse if it happens to a child because they're fragile, and they don't have control over anything. They're at the world's mercy. So we have this feeling to protect them, and to want to make something better.

SHAPIRO: That's one reason President Obama mentions kids every time he talks about gun violence. Here he was in Denver, last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The only way this time will be different is if the American people demand that this time it must be different; that this time we must do something to protect our communities and our kids.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: On these three issues - gay marriage, immigration and gun control - Democrats are using kids most. But Republicans have also used children effectively. This was a Romney ad last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dear Daughter: Welcome to America. Your share of Obama's debt is over $50,000, and it grows every day.

SHAPIRO: Especially after years of bitter, negative campaigning, children bring a freshness to the political debate. And research shows that consumers and voters enjoy watching kids; certainly, more than they enjoy watching politicians.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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