WASHINGTON (AP) President Bush said last night that tens of thousands of terrorists still threaten America “ticking time bombs, set to go off” and promised to stalk them across the globe. In his first State of the Union address, he pledged a battle of equal vigor to revive the ailing economy.

Paul Wong
President Bush shakes hands with Vice President Dick Cheney as House Speaker Dennis Hastert looks on prior to the president”s State of the Union address last night.<br><br>AP PHOTO

“We will prevail in war, and we will defeat this recession,” the commander in chief said, standing before Congress and the public with heroically high approval ratings.

Nearly five months after the Sept. 11 attacks that shocked the world, Bush pledged to push the war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan to a dozen countries that he said harbor terrorist camps. He also warned of “an axis of evil” of nations like North Korea, Iran and Iraq, and said the United States would not allow them to threaten the world with weapons of mass destruction.

Offering chilling evidence of terrorists” plotting, Bush said U.S. forces in Afghanistan found diagrams of American nuclear power plants hidden in terrorist hide-outs.

Bush entered the packed House chamber to boisterous applause from Republicans and Democrats alike. Seconds into his speech, he made a fist, and tapped it lightly against the podium as he declared that despite terrorism and recession, “the state of our union has never been stronger.”

Democrats, responding to Bush, sought to show unity on the war while reinforcing differences on domestic policy.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt”s words for terrorists were similar to Bush”s: “Make no mistake about it: We are going to hunt you down and make you pay.” But he also challenged GOP positions on Social Security, taxes and health care.

In a 48-minute speech interrupted by applause more than 70 times, Bush urged Congress to pass his tax-cutting economic package and challenged Americans to commit two years or 4,000 hours to community service. He hopes to tap the surge in patriotism since the attacks.

“We can overcome evil with greater good,” the president said.

Amid extraordinary security, leaders of the congressional, judicial and executive branches gathered beneath the same Capitol dome that officials believe was targeted during the attacks on Washington and New York.

Dick Cheney, who has spent many nights in undisclosed locations because of security precautions, took the vice president”s traditional place on the rostrum behind the president during the speech.

In the gallery, first lady Laura Bush was joined by several guests in her VIP box high above the well of the House, including interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and firefighters, soldiers and other citizen-heroes whose stories helped buoy a weary nation.

“The men and women of our armed forces have delivered a message to every enemy of the United States,” Bush said. “You will not escape the justice of this nation.”

Outlining his post-Afghanistan battle plans, the president vowed to unearth “a terrorist underworld” of training camps in at least a dozen countries, including the Philippines, Bosnia and Somalia. He said nations will be given a chance to wipe out terrorists themselves, and the United States is willing to assist their efforts.

But, he warned: “If they do not act, America will.”

In his strongest terms yet, Bush called North Korea, Iraq and Iran part of an “axis of evil,” warning that their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction pose a “grave and growing danger” and will not be tolerated.

“I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer,” Bush said.

The nation”s 43rd president addressed Americans with a degree of national unity conferred on no other chief executive since Franklin D. Roosevelt. In polls, more than 80 percent of Americans say they approve of his performance.

In the Democratic response, Gephardt mentioned Enron Corp., the Texas-based energy company linked to Bush that collapsed with the life savings of many workers.

Bush did not mention Enron, but asked Congress to enact pension reform and require more financial disclosure from companies. “Corporate America must be made more accountable to employees and shareholders and held to the highest standards of conduct,” Bush said.

The measured response to Enron”s collapse reflects concern in the White House that voters view Bush and Republicans as more sympathetic to big business than to average Americans.

In stark terms, the president said U.S. forces found diagrams of American public water facilities, detailed instructions for making chemical weapons, surveillance maps of U.S. cities and descriptions of landmarks all evidence that terrorists may target a wide array of targets.

“What we have found in Afghanistan confirms that far from ending there our war against terror is only beginning,” the commander in chief said.

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