WASHINGTON (AP) – Democrats challenged the bright picture of America presented in President Bush’s State of the Union address Tuesday, saying it belied a darker reality of lost jobs, rising deficits and mounting casualties in Iraq.

Coming exactly one week before New Hampshire’s presidential primary and the night after Iowa’s caucuses, the speech gave Democratic presidential candidates an opportunity to discuss how they would take on a popular president whose campaign will highlight the economic recovery and his leadership in fighting terrorism – themes prominent in the address.

“The State of the Union may look rosy from the White House balcony or the suites of George Bush’s wealthiest donors,” said Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. “But hardworking Americans will see through this president’s effort to wrap his radical agenda with a compassionate ribbon.”

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark said Bush’s promises were “just smoke and mirrors” to hide that he “has helped those who have most, hurt those who have least, and ignored everyone in between.” Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said Bush “is trying to camouflage his irresponsible, divisive, right-wing agenda and repackage himself as a centrist compassionate conservative around election time.”

Democrats pointed to deficits approaching $500 billion and a loss of 2.3 million jobs since he took office. They also criticized Bush’s failure to build a broad international coalition in Iraq.

Fresh from his victory Monday in Iowa, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said Bush “still doesn’t understand what’s happening in living rooms across this country.” He said Bush “talked about how he wants to help people find jobs, but for three years he stood by while we lost more jobs than at any time since the Great Depression.”

In what he dubbed his own “state of the nation” speech, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said Bush’s tax cuts combined with the Iraq war have weakened the middle class. The administration “has spent $155 billion for an unnecessary war driven by fear,” Kucinich said.

In the official Democratic response to Bush’s speech, the top two Democrats on Capitol Hill said the president wasn’t doing enough to protect America from terrorists or to improve the economy. Excerpts of the response were released in advance.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California criticized Bush’s “go-it-alone foreign policy that leaves us isolated abroad and that steals the resources we need for education and health care here at home.”

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said, “Instead of borrowing even more money to give more tax breaks to companies so that they can export even more jobs, we propose tax cuts and policies that will strengthen our manufacturing sector and create good jobs at good wages here at home.”

Democrats responded to Bush in two languages. In a nationally televised, Spanish-language response, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson denounced Bush’s proposal to give temporary legal status to illegal immigrants who have jobs in the United States.

“Instead of being a way to a better life, the Bush plan represents a dead-end for immigrants, who after three years don’t have a guarantee they’ll be able to stay,” he said.

AP-ES-01-20-04 2240EST

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