Yes, there was weighty talk of war, terror and economic distress. But President Bush had other issues to contend with, too, as he prepared for Tuesday night's State of the Union address.

"My fellow Americans," he playfully intoned to reporters during an impromptu midday visit to the White House briefing room. "Red tie or blue tie?"

The vote yielded a split decision.

Bush was delivering only his third address to Congress, making this latest trip to the Capitol against a vastly different political backdrop from his first one last February.

Then, Bush joked that he was glad he didn't need a formal invitation from legislators because "it could have been a close vote."

This time, Bush didn't need to worry about mounting a charm offensive. With last year's postelection rancor washed away by post-Sept. 11 patriotism and unity, the president's job-approval ratings are now supersized.

Still, signs abounded of the seriousness of the times.

The White House was mum on whether Vice President Dick Cheney would be at the Capitol for the address.

"There is still a threat," said spokesman Ari Fleischer.

The name of the Cabinet member tapped to sit out this year's speech, a long-standing tradition, was being withheld until the designated absentee could be tucked away in a secure location.

Security was particularly tight, with the square around the Capitol to be closed to pedestrians for three hours before the speech and traffic within a three-block radius halted an hour before Bush spoke.

In the not-so-hush-hush ways of Washington, a source identified by Fleischer only as a "tippy-top senior administration official" (wink, wink) gave network TV anchors a sneak preview of Bush's speech over a lobster lunch.

And then the president went back to tinkering. Taking advantage of a burst of unusually balmy weather for Washington in January, he rehearsed — and reworked — his words on an outside porch off the East Wing.