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Fifth State of the Union Address tonight

| Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2006

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, in his State of the Union speech tonight, will offer ideas for dealing with domestic problems like high energy and health care costs and international troubles like Iran's suspected nuclear ambitions.

The unspoken agenda underpinning the address, Bush's fifth, is the rescue of his presidency from arguably its worst year.

His poll numbers fell to the lowest point of his presidency under the weight of missteps following Hurricane Katrina, soaring energy costs, the withdrawal of a Supreme Court nominee, the failure of his high-profile effort to drive a Social Security overhaul, and increasing scrutiny from the public and Congress of the unpopular Iraq war.

While Bush's approval rating has recovered slightly, it remains in the still-anemic low 40s. It is a matter of concern for Republicans as they worry about maintaining control of Congress in this fall's midterm elections.

"I can't tell you how upbeat I am about our future, so long as we're willing to lead," Bush said at a photo opportunity Monday with his Cabinet. Referring to the bitter political tone in Washington, Bush said, "I'll do my best to elevate the tone here in Washington, D.C., so we can work together to achieve big things for the American people."

Unlike last year's focus on Social Security, an initiative that failed, Bush's emphasis will be more diffuse, with proposals aimed at taming health care costs, moving America away from its dependence on foreign energy sources, remaining competitive in the global economy, and getting the ballooning federal deficit under control.

Those four areas also are driving Bush's post-speech travel. The White House says Bush will give one major speech per week for the next four weeks and in each lay out one domestic initiative he introduces tonight..

Bush travels Thursday to Maplewood, Minn., to talk about competitiveness agenda. Proposals in that area will include boosting federal investment in math and science education, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Bush had not yet announced his ideas.

The president also is traveling this week to Nashville, Tenn., where on Wednesday he will recap of his State of the Union address, and to Albuquerque, N.M., and Dallas on Friday to continue highlighting his initiatives to keep America's economy vital in an increasingly global marketplace, the official said.

Limited by the ballooning federal deficit and a small appetite for sweeping initiatives in an election year, the president is repackaging several staples from past agendas.

For instance, he was expected to propose tax breaks to speed fuel-saving technologies -- such as powering cars with hydrogen fuel cells or ethanol or producing electricity from renewables like solar power or wind -- into broader use.

He also was to ask Congress to expand existing health saving accounts, the high-deductible health care plan that allows Americans to contribute money tax-free to 401 (k)-like health savings plans, and to allow greater tax deductions for out-of-pocket medical expenses.

To highlight the importance of those two areas, first lady Laura Bush will have among her guests for the speech an individual involved in energy-efficiency initiatives and a small-business owner struggling to provide health care coverage to his employees. Others to appear in her box in the House gallery as human symbols of Bush's biggest priorities were a military family and an Iraqi voter.

On the global front, Bush said Monday he will talk about the need for the United States and its allies to be united in saying Iran must not be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon.

"We're working on the tactics necessary to continue putting a united front out," Bush told reporters. "The other thing is that we want the people of Iran to be able to live in a free society."

He was also expected to explain his strategy in Iraq and give a defense of a domestic surveillance program, in which he authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on the international communications of Americans with suspected ties to terrorists.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the State of the Union address has now gone through about two dozen drafts. The president had what was likely be his final two practice sessions with the remarks yesterday in the White House's Family Theater.

Democrats offered advance criticism of Bush's speech, with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., taking to the floor of the Senate to say that "empty promises will no longer cut it."

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine was chosen to deliver the State of the Union response for Democrats. Previewing his remarks, he told The Associated Press, "I want to contrast what I consider to be an administration that is super partisan and not really able to deliver results with a different model, a better way, which is what we've been doing in Virginia and other states."

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