WASHINGTON – As war talk intensified, President Bush on Sunday rehearsed a State of the Union speech that is meant to confront Americans' doubts about an attack on Iraq and to sell his plans for new tax cuts and a Medicare overhaul.
Bush attended church and jogged Sunday morning, then spent time practicing the address with confidante Karen Hughes. He had no public appearances scheduled, giving himself plenty of time to prepare for the Tuesday night speech.
But Monday was sure to be a landmark date in Bush's deliberations on whether to attack Iraq: U.N. weapons inspectors were to turn over their report on whether Iraq has cooperated adequately. The president's communications director, Dan Bartlett, called submission of the report the start of "this last phase" in the showdown between the United States and Iraq.
White House officials have sought to play down expectations that the inspections might turn up hard evidence Iraq maintains stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, a message they brought to the airwaves again Sunday.
"I think the real headline is, no proof that Saddam Hussein is complying with the United Nations in disarming," White House chief of staff Andrew Card said on NBC's Meet the Press.
Amir al-Saadi, the Iraqi president's science adviser, said over the weekend that Iraq has cooperated fully, but that an invasion appeared inevitable, no matter what Baghdad does.
Bush's challenge in persuading the public of the need for war was underlined in recent polls. More than half -- 53 percent -- responding to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press said the president has not yet explained clearly what is at stake to justify war.
With opposition growing overseas, the president will seek to project unity Friday at Camp David with his staunchest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Yet Blair faces a challenge persuading his own public of the wisdom of war. Opinion surveys show that support for military action against Iraq is at its lowest level ever among the British public.
In the United States, the public has grown increasingly skeptical about Bush's handling of the economy, with 44 percent approving of his economic stewardship and 49 percent disapproving in an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.
Only 35 percent in that poll said they expect Bush's $674 billion, 10-year stimulus plan -- most of that committed to tax cuts -- will be very effective or "fairly effective" at helping the economy, adding to Bush's challenge on Tuesday night.
Card said he is confident Congress will approve Bush's plan.
"There's a sausage machine on Capitol Hill," he said. "We gave the sausage machine all of the right ingredients, they have to churn, and I'm confident that when they turn that sausage out it'll be the right kind of sausage for America."
Bush will also use the speech to reiterate his long-standing goal of adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. Under the plan being considered by his administration, the thousands of beneficiaries who participate in traditional Medicare could not get prescription drug coverage unless they enrolled in private plans.
Bush will fill in some of the details at a speech Wednesday in Michigan, a state critical to his re-election and one that he lost in 2000.
He will also announce new initiatives and federal spending to help the needy, by working through community and religious groups.