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Va.'s Webb Offers a Blunt Challenge to Bush

On the economy, he described a growing divide between rich and poor during the Bush presidency. "In short, the middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table," he said.

For Webb, the speech capped a remarkable year that began with an underfunded, largely dismissed campaign to unseat a leading presidential hopeful. For most of the year, his campaign was ignored by pundits and criticized by suspicious Democrats.

But his bid for office caught on as Allen's was rocked by gaffes and scandal. After his 9,000-vote victory, Webb thrust his son's combat boots over his head, the first time Webb had had them off his feet in public since the Senate campaign began.

Webb began yesterday by spilling a cup of coffee on his blue shirt, prompting an aide to urge a change of clothes rather than just a buttoning of his jacket. "I told him this was one of the biggest appearances he'd make in his life, so maybe we should change the shirt," said Jessica Smith, Webb's communications director.

For the first time, networks planned to broadcast the State of the Union and Webb's response in high-definition television. That prompted Webb's staff to hire a makeup specialist who could make sure that Webb looked good in crystal-clear pictures.

Aides said Webb took the speech seriously, vigorously rewriting the initial draft suggested by the offices of Reid and Pelosi. But like past State of the Union responders, Webb received much unsolicited advice. Asked why the speech grew from five minutes to more than eight, Smith said, "That's what happens when you have input from everyone."

Webb concluded his speech with references to former presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt and a warning for Bush:

"These presidents took the right kind of action for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight, we are calling on this president to take similar action in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way."

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