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Some 2008 Contenders Disagree, Politely

By Shailagh Murray and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

President Bush's audience at the Capitol last night included at least 10 Republicans and Democrats who hope to succeed him, and their response to his State of the Union address ranged from enthusiastic to tepid.

The most generous was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a leading contender for the GOP nomination and Bush's chief defender on the Iraq war, including the administration's latest plan to deploy an additional 21,500 troops.

"This strategy ought to be given a chance, because the consequences of failure are immense, and we'll be back again some day," McCain told ABC News in a post-speech interview. "This is going to be long and hard and tough."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the Democratic front-runner, was more skeptical, urging Bush to seek a more "comprehensive approach" to the Iraq crisis. Bush's troop escalation proposal, she said, was "really more of the same. We've gone down this road before."

"Most Americans believe that escalation will not bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end, and that's why I've proposed not just a troop cap, but a phased redeployment that will start bringing our troops home," added Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), another major contender.

Bush was the main event last night, but the 2008 contenders created their own media sideshow. As lawmakers milled around on the House floor prior to the speech, cameras caught Obama joking with colleagues and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and applauding politely as Cabinet secretaries filed into the chamber. Obama sat directly in front of Clinton during the speech, while McCain sat with his head bowed, following along with a written version.

Presidential prospects dominated post-speech television coverage, with the national networks staking out a separate interview staging ground for party VIPs in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda, away from the hoards of local television crews that packed Statuary Hall in the Capitol. Obama showed up first, immediately after the speech ended at 10:15 p.m., and announced that he hadn't heard anything surprising, although he did describe the mood in the chamber as "courteous."

Meanwhile, Clinton stood a few steps away, noting the "very crowded rotunda" as she peered around for a way to duck past Obama.

As of last night, Obama had been booked on all the major morning news programs, while Clinton declined to appear. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), another 2008 contender, had been scheduled on several programs, but was bumped, according to a senior Democratic Senate aide.

John Edwards, a former senator and the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, watched the speech from Miami and made a series of television appearances from there. He responded to Bush's speech with a full-page ad today in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that asks Congress to use its power to stop President Bush from sending more troops to Iraq.

The text reads, "Last night, you heard the president speak. Today, listen to the American people," and is followed by a list of voters who have endorsed Edwards's proposal that Congress block funding for a troop increase.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the 2004 presidential nominee, offered some of the harshest criticism of the night, saying Bush "glossed over the disastrous war and its multibillion-dollar price tag and implied again that our presence in Iraq is somehow improving the situation in that chaotic and turbulent country."

Kerry added that he would soon introduce legislation to demand that the White House set a date for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Democratic candidates were most generous in their response to Bush's domestic proposals, particularly ideas to expand health coverage and cut gasoline consumption. "The president offered some serious proposals tonight on two issues -- energy and health care -- that we all agree must be addressed," Obama said in a post-speech statement. "I'm glad he did and I think it's important to respond in a constructive way."

Clinton echoed Obama's more conciliatory response to the president's domestic proposals. "I'm willing to work with anyone," he said. "Let's try to get something done."

On the Republican side, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, another major contender for the GOP presidential nomination, had warm things to say about Bush's speech during an interview on Fox.

"I thought the speech was a very good one and I thought it did what the president had to do, which is to get us kind of beyond Iraq, meaning there are a lot of other things we have to concentrate on," he said.

Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.

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