Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Lawmakers ready to spin Bush speech

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The hype starts weeks before. The two teams talk themselves hoarse. And the huge audience means a major chance to sell, sell and sell. The State of the Union address, which President Bush gives tonight, is the Super Bowl of political speeches, and not just because it comes around the same time as the National Football League's championship game.

It's the one time of year when many people who wouldn't normally pay attention tune in; last year an estimated 52 million watched Mr. Bush's State of the Union address. (An estimated 87 million saw last year's Super Bowl.)

Because of that, it's also a chance to sell: not beer or cars, but political messages.

"It's an opportunity that only comes around once a year for the president's agenda to get center stage," said Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who worked in the first Bush White House and now is the House Republican leadership's liaison to the White House. "It's quite an operation."

Immediately after the president's speech, members of Congress will flock to Statuary Hall, a statue-filled chamber off the House floor. There they will flip open their cell phones and relay remarkably similar comments about the speech back to their hometown papers and TV stations.

The reason the comments will sound eerily alike is because of "talking points," one or two pages of highlights, points to make, and statistics the White House will have distributed earlier in the day to Republicans. Democrats will have their own talking points.

Last year, Democratic talking points included this: "The economy is in recession, the tax cut has depleted the federal surplus, and the Bush administration is facing a return to deficit spending."

For a story on the speech, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, told The Dallas Morning News: "We are in a recession, the tax cut has depleted the federal surplus, and the economy has not been stimulated."

Republican press secretaries had a conference call last week to discuss their media strategy. Today, White House communications staffers, as they did last year, will come to Capitol Hill to brief GOP press secretaries.

A handful of White House staffers will patrol Statuary Hall after the speech, taking notes on the spin - from both sides - a job that was Mr. Portman's when he worked in the first Bush White House.

"I would literally go from huddle to huddle taking notes as to what members were saying on the other side of the aisle," Mr. Portman said. "Then I would write a report that night."

Because the Tristate delegation has several GOP leaders, it will play an especially key role in selling the speech. Besides Mr. Portman, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, is chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. His job will be to turn the president's rhetoric into legislation "to send right back to where it started: the president," said Steve Forde, the West Chester Republican's spokesman.

Mr. Boehner, like many other members, runs an e-mail network that will send Mr. Boehner's statements to thousands of people in the Tristate and nationally.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, already has begun selling the speech's message. He appeared Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, pushing the president's tough line on Iraq and more tax cuts for the economy.

But Republicans who aren't nationally known will train their message on local newspapers, writing columns or issuing statements, or to local TV stations. One member this year, Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., will field calls directly from constituents immediately after the speech.

Because the speech has an international audience, the White House even sends talking points to its embassies.

In fact, the selling of the speech began weeks ago. The White House has dribbled out bits of new policy - a new drug benefit for Medicare beneficiaries who join managed care plans, for example - so it's not all dumped on the public in one speech.

Democrats, too, have been cashing in on the speech to sell their messages.

Congress' most liberal faction, the Progressive Caucus, gives its "alternative state of the union" today. The Democrats' leaders in the Senate and House, Tom Daschle and Nancy Pelosi, gave their "pre-buttal" to the speech Monday afternoon.

And the Democrats have their own Web page already set up to counter the speech, at www.democrats.org. (Even a group of artists called the Shirts Off Coalition plans to use the event to get their message out, holding a "Sorry State of the Union" rally.)

The opposition party gets to give a rebuttal, and this year, Washington Gov. Gary Locke will present the Democrats' response.

But because Republicans control the White House, Senate and House, Republicans this year will have the best marketing prospects.

Many members, rather than wait for the end of the speech to give their reaction, will send out "preaction" statements this afternoon once they've received talking points and speech highlights from the White House.

On Wednesday morning, as local readers digest the reaction, the president himself joins the marketing effort.

To keep the momentum going, Mr. Bush will take his message on the road, traveling to Grand Rapids, Mich. Last year it was Winston-Salem, N.C.

"A lot of the focus stays on the president, even after the State of the Union," Mr. Portman said. "It's a huge production. It's the president's best opportunity to get his message across."

E-mail cweiser@gns.gannett.com

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