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GOP sees easy target in Democratic responder

Washington governor to respond to Bush

From John Mercurio
CNN Washington Bureau

Washington Gov. Gary Locke
Washington Gov. Gary Locke

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CNN's special team coverage of the State of the Union address continues after the address Tuesday evening. 

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Searching for a strong response to President Bush's State of the Union address, Democrats made a curious choice. They turned to Washington Gov. Gary Locke, an obscure, two-term executive at a political low point, whose state is grappling with one of the nation's highest budget deficits ($2.5 billion) and rates of unemployment (6.8 percent).

Republicans didn't have to dig hard to craft a comprehensive hit piece on him.

Shortly after Democrats said Locke would deliver the 10-minute response to Bush's speech, the Republican National Committee fired off an e-mail attacking his leadership skills and vision, areas which even state Democrats concede he is weak in. The RNC criticized his handling of the state budget and his plummeting poll numbers.

Additionally, he has proposed several unpopular spending cuts, failed to fix the state's transportation crisis and asked state legislators to ignore two statewide initiatives passed by voters last year. The latest poll shows only 30 percent of state voters approve of his job performance.

He's also not known as an accomplished speaker. When The New York Times recently asked how he felt leading up to his speech, Locke said, "Yikes!"

But Democrats say they chose Locke, 53, the nation's first Chinese-American governor, who recently took over as chairman of the 24-member Democratic Governors Association, to highlight their message that Bush's economic agenda has failed miserably and his penchant for cutting taxes has saddled most states with fiscal shortfalls.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, this week said governors are full partners with congressional Democrats in offering alternatives to Bush and congressional Republicans. "The Democratic governors are going to be an integral part of our organizational effort," Daschle told the Associated Press.

Democrats say Daschle agreed to let the DGA select the speaker from among their ranks. The governors then chose Locke, who will be one of the first governors ever to deliver a response message to the State of the Union address.

Locke aides wrote the speech in Olympia, in consultation with the national party and congressional leaders and the DGA. The governor had wanted to deliver the speech from his home state, but he ultimately acquiesced to national party leaders, who asked him to join them in Washington for the speech.

Locke recently said he plans to contrast Bush's proposal on cutting dividend taxes with Democratic plans to help out everyday people who are struggling. He has noted that 1.5 million jobs have been lost since the recession began and that many states are overwhelmed by budget woes. Locke also plans to criticize the president's plan to eliminate taxes on stock dividends.

Locke arrived in Washington Monday and met Tuesday afternoon in the Capitol with Daschle and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to discuss his speech. He will be practicing his address, with a final rehearsal and photo op scheduled for 6 to 6:45 p.m. at the Hall of the States. A photo-op of Locke watching the president's speech will occur between 9 and 9:15 p.m.

It's unclear what the future holds for Locke, who has not said whether he will run for a third term in 2004. If he does run, early signs point to trouble. One prominent Democrat, former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge, has already joined the gubernatorial race, saying his top issue would be Locke's absent leadership.

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