Speech Defines Election-Year Issues

President Bush, in his role as the nation's chief executive, had the grand platform of a State of the Union (search) address to promote his re-election themes -- an image that contrasted sharply with the Democrats scrambling in New Hampshire in their pursuit of the chance to be his challenger.

Beyond the political jockeying, the high-profile events afforded Bush and the Democrats an opportunity to define the major issues of this presidential election year: health care costs (search), job creation (search), combatting terrorism (search), homeland security (search) and the reconstruction of Iraq (search).

Bush's speech came a day after Iowa caucuses rearranged the Democratic race, handing come-from-behind victories to Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, delivering a distant third-place finish to former front-runner Howard Dean and forcing Rep. Dick Gephardt out of the race.

Now, the task facing each of the remaining major candidates -- Kerry, Edwards, Dean, Wesley Clark and Sen. Joe Lieberman -- is trying to prove to voters why he is the most capable of defeating Bush.

"Electability" (search) has become a key issue for Democrats as they try to buck historical trends that suggest an incumbent president, with no intraparty opposition, has a major advantage in seeking re-election in a robust or recovering economy.

Bush's father lost his re-election bid in 1992 to Democrat Bill Clinton because of a weak economy, and the perception that he wasn't doing enough to address it. The younger Bush is determined not to let that happen.

The president's goal is to persuade Americans he has pursued a sound course for the nation's economy and security. Bush was placing special emphasis on domestic concerns, advocating measures he says will bring millions of uninsured onto the health care rolls, and to accelerate the country's adaptation to a changing economy through job-training initiatives.

It was a move from the dark tone he set in his last two State of the Union speeches, when he railed in 2002 against an "axis of evil" consisting of Iraq, Iran and North Korea and warned in 2003 about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, none of which has been found.

To be sure, Bush, with an audience of millions of Americans, was grabbing the spotlight from the Democrats, who hoped it would be, as Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg suggested, "a moment where he will ride high but that will not endure."

The Democratic field has changed from when the White House scheduled the address for the day after the caucuses. Then, it was widely believed that Dean, whose signature issue was his opposition to the Iraq war, was the mostly likely to prevail in Iowa.

Instead, Kerry emerged the victor -- and the decorated Vietnam War veteran and four-term senator could pose a greater challenge to Bush on the foreign policy front. Edwards and retired four-star general Clark, are both Southerners who could pose a problem for Bush in the South.

Bush's address comes as U.S. voters were worrying more about domestic matters, including the rising cost of health care.

An Associated Press poll found that concerns about the overall economy have dropped during the past year, mostly in the last months of the year. According to the poll conducted for the AP by Ipsos-Public Affairs, unemployment has edged up slightly as one of the nation's most important problems over the last year.

Worries about terrorism continue to loom large, as they have for more than two years, according to the poll. Health care costs were mentioned by 19 percent in the poll, up from 11 percent a year ago and 5 percent two years ago.

Bush was making health care a top issue of his election-year agenda and Democrats also were stressing it, along with the failure of the recovering economy to produce new jobs and the burgeoning budget deficit.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said, "George W. Bush has squandered a $5 trillion surplus and turned it into a record deficit and he has put issues important to the American people on the back burner."

James Thurber, a political scientist at American University, said the State of the Union address offered Bush a good opportunity to appear presidential, particularly at a time when Democrats seem to be having a hard time getting their act together.