Bush Delivers State of the Union to Hive of 2008 Hopefuls

Whenever a president's words wash over a crowd in Congress, it's a safe bet many in the chamber picture themselves in his position and think they could do better if only they had the chance.

What distinguished the crowd assembled for President Bush on Tuesday night was the sheer number of lawmakers reaching for that chance.

Not willing to let Bush have the first word and then gamely react, the presidential candidates were in motion all day, playing off his State of the Union themes in their own I-can-do-better way.

Bush Delivers State of the Union | VIDEO | TRANSCRIPT

Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York talked about health care, Iraq and more on a day packed with four TV interviews, a news conference, a Webcast and a forceful appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee where she appealed for better equipment and security for troops.

"The Humvees are turning into death traps," she complained.

• Dems Respond to State of the Union | TRANSCRIPT

Sen. John McCain of Arizona commanded attention in that hearing room, too. The 2008 GOP presidential prospect, a supporter of Bush's troop increase in Iraq, explored the consequences of pulling out.

"It took us a long time to recover from losing a war," he said in a reference to Vietnam, where he spent five years as a prisoner.

Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware led a Foreign Relations Committee hearing rich with presidential prospects including himself.

After a day of hearings and more, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama arranged a last word of sorts, a late-night TV news interview after Bush's speech and the formal Democratic response to it.

Obama announced that his guest for the speech was a celebrated South Side Chicago schoolteacher, Rana Khan.

Clinton, who has been advocating more money to help 9/11 emergency workers made ill by their recovery efforts, invited the son of a retired New York City police officer whom she described as "fighting for his life." The former officer died a few hours before Bush traveled to the Capitol, and his son still planned to join the other guests.

Non-lawmakers joined the buzz of the wannabes. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former House member and energy secretary who announced his Democratic presidential candidacy last week, took part in a telephone briefing to discuss climate change and energy issues in advance of Bush's remarks on those very topics.

Democratic candidate Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor, didn't wait to hear Bush's speech before criticizing it in a "pre-buttal."

Al Gore, who has not ruled out running again, saw his film on global warming earn two Oscar nominations.

The speech was the first in years with so many serious presidential contenders in the House chamber, hearing the dramatic introduction they hope will someday be for them.

Those words of the sergeant-at-arms, ushering Bush inside, were amended to account for California Rep. Nancy Pelosi 's historic rise as the first woman to lead the House: "Madam Speaker, the president of the United States!"

Ten senators and members of Congress are vying for the presidency, including such top-tier prospects as Clinton, McCain and Obama, and more might get in the race. Except for the near-rookie Obama, many of them have sat through this ritual over and over.

Clinton sat through two State of the Union speeches shadowed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal that led to her husband's impeachment.

The first, in 1998, came just days after allegations surfaced that Bill Clinton had had a sexual relationship with the intern. Hours before the speech, Mrs. Clinton made the explosive assertion that the scandal was devised by a "vast right-wing conspiracy."

The chamber always has plenty of people in the audience with the potential to be president someday, even if only their moms think so.

But not since 1976 have there been more senators running, said Senate historian Donald Ritchie.

Then there were eight, he said. Now there are six: Democrats Clinton, Obama, Biden and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and Republicans McCain and Sam Brownback of Kansas. Two more might join the field: Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel for the GOP and 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry of Massachusetts.

The race includes four House members and several former senators, most prominently Democrat John Edwards.