WASHINGTON – The Democrats are focusing on the economy rather than possible war in their response to President Bush's State of the Union speech, turning to one of their governors as a reminder that the nation faces serious problems at home.
Washington state Gov. Gary Locke, whose state is dealing with soaring unemployment and a budget crisis, will deliver the Democratic response Tuesday night.
"The strength that he is going to bring to it is that his experience as a successful governor is not inside the Beltway. That's something the Democratic Party is looking for," said Michael Waldman, a former speechwriter for President Clinton who is helping to draft Locke's speech.
But the state's economic troubles have taken their toll on Locke, the nation's first Chinese-American governor and a one-time rising star.
The 53-year-old Locke, chairman of the 24-member Democratic Governors Association, is suffering from the lowest popularity ratings of his six years in office. Washington state has one of the nation's highest unemployment rates and a projected $2.4 billion shortfall in a $24 billion, two-year budget.
Locke's fellow Democrats in the state complain that his proposed budget would cut education, social services and health programs.
Republicans have hailed Locke's opposition to increasing state taxes, but a number of Democrats have urged him to reconsider. And if Locke decides to seek a third term in 2004, he already has a Democratic challenger, former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge.
Locke brushed aside internal grumbling and said he will try in his 12-minute rebuttal to represent both his party and the bipartisan concerns of the nation's governors.
"As the chief executives of our states, we work in real time, with real dollars, to serve the citizens of our country and deal with the issues that are important to them, like education, health care and job creation," he said.
Last week, Locke criticized Bush's $674 billion, 10-year economic stimulus plan, of which $670 billion would be tax cuts, as tilted toward the wealthy. He also has complained that Bush's proposal would not do enough to help cash-strapped states such as Washington.
Locke said he planned to use to his speech to contrast Bush's proposal to cut dividend taxes with Democratic plans to "help out everyday people who are struggling." He noted that 1.5 million jobs had been lost since the recession began two years ago and many states face severe budget shortfalls.
The government said he would talk about the war on terrorism, but he declined to say if he would discuss the pending war against Iraq.
Usually, party leaders in Congress give the opposition response. But Democratic governors, who picked up four seats in the last election for a total of 24, have been pressing for more say in the national political message.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who was instrumental in choosing Locke for the Democratic response, said governors are full partners with congressional Democrats in offering alternatives to Bush and congressional Republicans.
"The Democratic governors are going to be an integral part of our organizational effort," Daschle said.