Bush in campaign mode: a strong defense

He promotes his aggressive foreign policy amid rising campaign hits.

When it comes to his handling of national security, President Bush has this to say to his Democratic critics: Bring it on.

His State of the Union address on Tuesday night contained an unusually frank defense of the war in Iraq, laced with references to "some" who judged his actions unwise. He even mentioned the still-missing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, saying inspectors had identified dozens of WMD "program activities."

It was all part of a speech that in many ways seemed an official kick-off of the White House's campaign season. Even the sections on domestic policy appeared partly calculated as response to Democrats, and an effort to energize the president's conservative base. "It was none too subtle," says Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a University of Pennsylvania political science professor.

Before the speech, many in Washington believed that Mr. Bush would use his bully pulpit - the most visually impressive setting for a speech he will have until the GOP convention - to soften his image and emphasize domestic policy. White House officials hinted at many possible domestic subjects, from a reemphasis on marriage-education spending to a further discussion of his proposal to eventually send astronauts to Mars.

But in the end, the president did not switch to an emphasis on the economy until he was 26 minutes into the speech. Much of the opening half was devoted to foreign issues, with the exception of references to the passage of prescription-drug coverage for seniors, and a call to make his tax cuts permanent.

That's unsurprising, in a way: Bush's image as a strong leader in the wake of terrorist attacks remains his most valuable political asset. For all the problems bedeviling the US now in Iraq, polls consistently show that voters prefer Bush over Democratic opponents on this issue.

Whether it is good foreign policy or not, the US plan to turn sovereignty back to Iraqis in a few months appears good politics, so far. The turning point here might have been the capture of Saddam Hussein.

"Saddam's capture may have convinced many Democrats that the war might end up a winning issue for the president," says William Mayer, an expert on American politics at Northeastern University in Boston.

Certainly the most vehemently antiwar Democratic candidate, Howard Dean, is suddenly finding himself in unexpected trouble. In the Iowa caucus, attendees cited the war as the most important issue facing the country only half as often as they mentioned the economy or healthcare.

The sharpest-edged part of Bush's discussion of foreign affairs might have come when he ticked off a list of nations involved with the US in Iraq, including Britain, Spain, Poland, and Denmark - which was intended to blunt the criticism that the US needs to internationalize the operation.

It was an emotional highlight of a speech that otherwise was somewhat forgettable - a 5 or 6 on a scale of 10, says Douglas Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans.

"That was an effective anecdote," he says.

Still, overall Bush exuded more energy when talking about domestic issues than foreign policy, according to other observers.

There are two reasons for that, according to Allan Lichtman, a political-science professor at American University in Washington. One is practical: Bush knows that this is his area of political vulnerability. Another is personal: Many of the issues Bush mentioned, from curbing steroids in professional sports to his defense of "traditional" marriage, are things he evidently cares a great deal about.

Overall, the domestic section might well have been aimed at energizing and unifying the GOP conservative base, as opposed to appealing to soccer moms or NASCAR dads or whatever segment of swing voters is currently politically popular.

"This was not a centrist speech," says Professor Lichtman. "The gauntlet was thrown for the fall campaign."

The main initiatives mentioned by Bush were mostly previous proposals with considerable conservative appeal, after all. He did not soften his call for making tax cuts permanent, for instance. He mentioned again that Americans should be able to invest some of their Social Security taxes on their own, though he did not dwell on this at length.

In the end, though, Bush was no Clinton - or no Reagan. Flashes of humor were nonexistent. He pointed out few special guests, with the exception of the current head of the Iraqi Governing Council.

Unlike the "axis of evil" speech two years ago, this one contained no phrases likely to enter the lexicon.

"It was not a historical moment," says historian Brinkley. Still, he says, "He exuded a sense of a man in charge - that he is somebody who is in firm control of himself. There is no question of who is running the country: It is George W. Bush."

Sara B. Miller contributed to this report.

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