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Bush lunches press pre speech { January 28 2003 }

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January 28, 2003
4 Dress Rehearsals, and President Is Set for State of the Union

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 President Bush had two dress rehearsals today for his State of the Union speech, one in the morning and another in the late afternoon, as he put finishing touches on another address that the capital is once again calling the speech of his life.

Mr. Bush also had a private lunch with Vice President Dick Cheney, then met with a group of newspaper and magazine columnists to preview his speech. On Tuesday, the day of the address, he is to have lunch with the television anchors and Sunday news program hosts who will comment on his speech throughout the week. Among them are Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert of NBC and Peter Jennings and George Stephanopoulos of ABC.

As the expectations continued to build today for a State of the Union address that was being talked about in historic proportions, at least among the capital's chattering class, White House officials cast Mr. Bush as the relaxed center of the storm. He was only making small revisions in the speech, they said.

White House speechwriters had left space in the text of the speech for a reaction to the report today of the United Nations weapons inspectors, but it was unclear tonight how much of that space had been used. Officials said today that they had been given some advance notice of the thrust of Mr. Blix's report.

"We had a generalized sense," said Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary.

Mr. Bush spent his weekend at the White House, where he had a first dress rehearsal on Friday and then another on Sunday. He also entertained his parents, who stayed at the White House on Friday and Saturday nights. The elder Bushes were in town to accompany the younger Bushes to a dinner of the Alfalfa Club, an annual banquet of the well connected in Washington.

Mr. Bush had his dress rehearsals in the East Wing family theater, normally used for movies and presidential speech practicing. White House officials said the audience for Mr. Bush's rehearsals today included Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser; Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff; Dan Bartlett, the communications director; and Michael Gerson, the chief White House speechwriter.

Also listening was Karen P. Hughes, one of Mr. Bush's closest confidantes, who left the White House staff in July for Austin, Tex., but who returns regularly to supervise major speeches and advise the president at big moments. Ms. Hughes has had a hand in revising the speech, White House officials said. The address, to start at 9:01 p.m., is expected to run a little less than an hour.

Despite the focus on how Mr. Bush will use the speech to make his case against Saddam Hussein, administration officials said today that most of the address would not be about Iraq, but about the economy and other domestic concerns. Mr. Fleischer called the speech "very lofty." He said Mr. Bush had no plans tonight beyond dinner at the White House and another read-through of the address. "This speech is locked and ready to go," Mr. Fleischer said. "He's comfortable with it, he's ready to do it."

White House officials would not say who will sit in the first lady's box on Tuesday night in the chamber of the House of Representatives, where Mr. Bush will deliver the address to a joint session of Congress. But among the people to be recognized by the president is a member of the Army reserves who has worked on the reconstruction of Afghanistan, Pentagon officials said.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Bush has been delivering speeches that have had enormous buildups in momentous times. His biggest, and the one widely considered his best, was the Sept. 20, 2001, speech he delivered to a joint session of Congress that laid out the campaign against terrorism.

Mr. Bush also delivered a major speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 12, 2002, that laid out his case against Iraq and challenged the U.N. to take on Mr. Hussein.

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