When George W. Bush strides to the podium Tuesday night on Capitol Hill to deliver his State of the Union message, he already will have scored a victory of sorts, without even opening his mouth.
It is the victory of the visual: The president of the United States, running for reelection in November, unopposed within his own party, has a national TV audience all to himself. The Democrats, fresh from their wild ride in the Iowa caucuses, are fighting to keep their sights on Bush - but they have to claw past each other to reach him.
The timing of the annual presidential address to Congress isn't accidental, Republicans say. Bush wants to change the subject. And he has plenty to toss around in his hour-long speech: foremost, the war on terror - his strongest issue in polls - but also Iraq, jobs, outer space, and the state of marriage in America. It will be an intensely political moment, even as he strives to rise above politics.
Bush's challenge, observers say, will be to appeal to the political center, at a time when the nation's partisan divide is as strong as ever.
"On the one hand, he doesn't want to polarize the country any further, particularly in an election year," says George Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A & M. "At the same time, you want to present a vision or a story line, and structure people's thinking about the administration all the way into the voting booth in November."
The way to do that, Professor Edwards says, is through symbolic gestures, such as his proposal to return to the moon and a $1.5 billion campaign to promote marriage.
Doubtful in Tuesday night's story line will be any hot buttons, such as support for a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as heterosexual. Bush's conservative base has been lobbying for that, but the president would gain nothing - and raise opponents' hackles - by making that case in such a closely watched speech.
The flow of Bush's speech is expected to follow the usual pattern of these annual messages to Congress: The president will declare the state of the union "good" (or "strong" or "sound"). He will say much work remains, particularly jobs. He will tout recent achievements, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein and an economy that he says is rebounding. He will lay out proposals for future action, many of which have already been previewed publicly.
If President Clinton was famous for packing dozens of small-bore ideas into his State of the Union addresses, Bush goes for the big bang theory: fewer, but grander, proposals.
The president's initiatives on space, marriage, and immigration reform have received lots of ink lately. While he will reportedly not propose any major new tax cuts, he will call for Congress to make his past (and temporary) tax cuts permanent.
Bush is also expected to propose new ways for Americans to save money for retirement, home purchase, and college tuition. He will also announce $120 million in grants for job training at community colleges, and expand further on the plan in a trip to Toledo, Ohio, on Wednesday.
Of all the issues pollsters ask about, the Republicans get some of their highest scores on Iraq, foreign policy, and the war on terrorism. All three will feature prominently in Bush's speech.
He will highlight the Dec. 13 capture of Mr. Hussein, and what he sees as progress in Iraq's transition to self-rule. Other foreign policy news he will tout includes plans by Libya and Iran to end their nuclear-weapons programs, talk of disarmament by the North Koreans, and Afghanistan's new Constitution.
In domestic areas, Bush doesn't fare nearly so well against Democrats. In last week's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Republicans tied with Democrats in handling the economy, with 36 percent each. Democrats beat Republicans soundly on health care, environment, prescription drugs for seniors, energy, corporate corruption, and Social Security.
Yet in the same poll, Bush still enjoys a 54 percent job approval rating and 51 percent of the public feel he deserves to be reelected.
"Clearly, the security concern trumps everything else," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "So in a sense, the success of the Bush campaign is held hostage by the Ayatollah Sistani and Osama bin Laden."
Some analysts see a parallel with President Reagan's 1984 campaign for reelection, when on many domestic issues, the Democrats beat the Republicans in polls. But Reagan still trounced Democratic nominee Walter Mondale.
"It was perceived to be a robust [economic] recovery in the middle of '84," says Ruy Texeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a new Democratic think tank. "The jury is still out on this one."
And in the end, Mr. Texeira adds, Bush is "still going to have an advantage for having been president on 9/11 and a few months at least of being perceived as having handled that effectively."