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Bush puts finishing touches on State of Union

U.S. President George W. Bush on Monday put the finishing touches on an election-year State of the Union speech in which he will stress his concern about problems at home after two years of warning of dangers abroad.
/ Source: Reuters

U.S. President George W. Bush on Monday put the finishing touches on an election-year State of the Union speech in which he will stress his concern about problems at home after two years of warning of dangers abroad.

Coming a day after the Democrats kick off the presidential election year by voting in the Iowa caucuses, Bush will make the argument, in the words of one top aide, that "the path we're on is the right path" and he will call on the country to unite on the goals of peace, security and economic prosperity.

Bush will stress the United States is still at war against terrorism, a message made clear by the threats from al Qaeda during the holiday season, and will underscore that his top priority is to protect the American people. Increases in homeland security and counter-terrorism spending are planned.

"It's almost finished, in case you're interested," Bush said of the speech. He practiced delivering the latest draft in the White House theater ahead of delivering it at 9 p.m. EST on Tuesday (0200 GMT Wednesday).

Bush supporters hope his nearly hour-long appearance on Capitol Hill before an estimated 60 million television viewers will provide an uplifting contrast to the bitterly waged battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"He needs to communicate to the country that he is a strong commander-in-chief who has a handle on issues of concern to the voters and is looking forward, not backward," said Republican strategist Scott Reed.

Bush used his last two State of the Union speeches to dramatize the perceived threat to the United States from abroad.

Two years ago he warned of an "axis of evil" -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- and last year pounded the war drums against Iraq by saying Baghdad possessed weapons of mass destruction, none of which have been found.

Aides said this year's theme is stay the course -- that the Iraq war was a success that offers the chance of a democracy in the Middle East, that tax cuts are working to bring the U.S. economy back, and that the war on terrorism must continue and the homeland be protected against the threat of new attacks.

Democrats counter that the promised weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have never been found, questioning the prime reason given for the U.S.-led invasion, and that more than 500 Americans have died there.

They also claim tax cuts are having a modest impact on the economy but huge negative consequences for the federal budget, and that Bush should have concentrated on finding Osama bin Laden instead of invading Iraq.

U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine, a New Jersey Democrat, called on Bush to address questions about the accuracy of intelligence claims last year about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

"This year's address provides a unique opportunity to set the record straight," Corzine said.

With voters citing the U.S. economy and health care costs as top priorities in this election year, Bush was expected to offer a number of modest proposals.

As part of a health care initiative, Bush was expected to revive a proposal to let small businesses band together to get a joint health insurance plan, and offer tax credits for the so-called under-insured, an estimated 40 million Americans with little or no health insurance.

"We'll take steps to help families and small businesses deal with the rising cost of health care," Bush said in his weekly radio address.

To help unemployed workers learn new skills, Bush will propose job training grants for use at community colleges.

And he will revive a plan to allow workers to invest a portion of their contributions to the Social Security retirement program in the stock market and call on the U.S. Congress to make his tax cuts permanent.