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Bush faces daunting political challenge in State of the Union

WASHINGTON—President Bush faces one of the most daunting political challenges of his career Tuesday night when he kicks off a pivotal midterm-election year with his State of the Union address.

He must frame the year's coming debate in a way that will lead Americans to stay the course with his Republican Party running the government, at a time when polls show that voters are in a sour mood and restless for change.

At stake is much more than the small new initiatives that he's expected to propose in his speech. His ability to control the national agenda in coming months could decide whether the government reins in federal spending, extends tax cuts, cracks down on illegal immigration, creates new ways to finance health care, opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and pursues a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

By November, Bush's degree of success will help determine whether Republicans maintain their decade-long control of Congress or whether Democrats take power in the House of Representatives, the Senate or both. A Democratic takeover of either chamber would give that party a say in the nation's agenda for the next two years, and the power to tie the Bush administration in knots with investigations.

The odds lean toward the Democrats right now. They probably will gain seats in Congress, most analysts agree, though it's not certain they'll win enough to take over. They need a net gain of 15 to take the House and six to take the Senate.

Bush heads to Capitol Hill on Tuesday with lower job-approval ratings, and less political clout, than he's had in his five previous addresses—and less than most of his predecessors.

He's weaker than any sixth-year president since Richard Nixon in 1974, when the Watergate scandal forced him to resign, led to big Republican losses in Congress and set the stage for the party's loss of the White House two years later. Bush's standing rivals that of Democrat Harry Truman in 1950, when Democrats lost seats in Congress and went on to lose the presidency two years later.

"He does not have a reservoir of good will, either in Congress or in the country," analyst Stuart Rothenberg said. "People in Congress are looking for ways to disagree with him. Democrats don't seem intimidated by him. And the public doesn't see him as honest, forthright or as much as a leader as they did a year ago. He's considerably weaker."

Perhaps even more troubling for Republicans, polls show that a majority of Americans are unhappy with the way things are going and are ready to change direction. Key reasons include the war in Iraq, the economy and gasoline prices.

"Most Americans think the state of the union is in pretty difficult shape right now," said Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "The president's going to have a lot of explaining to do."

Lawmakers of both parties will have to explain themselves this year too, and both parties enter the election year stressed by internal divisions.

Democrats are divided over how to challenge Bush on the war in Iraq, warrantless eavesdropping and his nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

Republicans are split over such issues as federal spending and immigration. While the president wants to stay the course, many conservatives want to tack more to the right and accelerate.

Social conservatives, for example, want Congress to reject election-year caution and pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. "Cold feet or not, it's time for Congress to get in step with the American people," said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council.

On immigration, business interests favor Bush's proposal to admit low-wage "guest workers," while social conservatives oppose that and want tougher border enforcement.

For all the obstacles they face in the president's sixth year, Republican lawmakers still enjoy some advantages of incumbency, not least that most House districts are designed to protect incumbents.

"I understand that there's wind to our face in the second term of a party in power," said Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-N.Y., the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which helps Republicans campaign for House seats. "But I also feel very good about the prospects of getting the job done."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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