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WASHINGTON BRIEFING

Engineer to have a day in the sun

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, the surname of pollster Alexander P. Gage was incorrect in an item in The Briefing column in yesterday's Nation pages.)

Last year Harvard mutual fund specialist Robert Pozen enjoyed a spring window of fame when President Bush credited him for the ideas underpinning his Social Security overhaul plan. On Tuesday night, the president's State of the Union address is expected to turn the media spotlight onto another brain -- Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin, an aerospace engineer who's partial to dog sledding in the Arctic.

The Princeton-trained engineer caught the attention of the White House by sounding the alarm over global economic competition. Augustine, who will receive the National Academy of Sciences' prestigious public welfare medal in April, last year led a congressionally mandated National Academies team that issued a report warning that America is ''on a losing path" in the global marketplace.

The report, ''Rising Above the Gathering Storm," was noticed by White House aides, including Karl Rove, deputy chief of staff, and Joshua Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget, who met with Augustine and other high-tech specialists in December. A senior administration official last week confirmed that competitive concerns in general, which administration strategists consider a bipartisan issue, and Augustine's findings in particular will be themes of Bush's address.

The report calls for improvements in K-12 math and science instruction, a strengthening of long-term basic research support, efforts to recruit and train top scientists and students, and the production of ''clean, affordable energy."

Among the professional credits on the 70-year-old Augustine's résumé: helping craft space vehicles, ''smart" weapons, and advanced aircraft systems and advising Democratic and Republican administrations.

Among his off-hour credits: exploring volcanoes in Antarctica, snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, and trekking to both poles.

Politics shaping economic views

''The State of the Union is one of those critical moments when the White House has the power to drive the national dialogue," says pollster Alexander P. Gage. That's the good news for the White House.

The bad news: It's not easy to keep favored issues on the public radar. Employing a new polling system that measures the information flow to voters, Gates found that Social Security apparently ranked above the Iraq war on the public mind last spring, after Bush proposed his overhaul. But by August, as the White House promotion of the plan started to sputter, so too did public interest. ''You have to constantly promote your agenda and then hope that hurricanes don't knock it off," Gage said.

Bush faces another tricky number Tuesday night as he attempts to tout gains in the economy: The public now sees economic news through political lenses. During the Clinton years, voters, regardless of party, generally agreed that the economy was either humming or coughing. But according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a partisan divide has now opened up, with Republicans holding a more favorable view of the state of the economy than Democrats.

Even so, Bush's problems cross party lines: ''Most Americans remain skeptical that the economy is improving, in spite of recent positive signals," Pew concluded.

Menino has word or two with ABC

Thomas M. Menino of Boston came to town last week for the US Conference of Mayors and stepped out of days of long-winded policy talk to issue ''rapid round" responses on national politics to interviewer Mark Halperin, political director of ABC News.

''One-word answers," Halperin demanded. ''First thought. Red Sox."

''World champion," Menino answered in two words.

''Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney?"

''President."

''President George W. Bush?"

''Leader."

''Vice President Cheney?"

''Oops."

''Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton?"

''President."

''We got a lot of presidents here. Vice President Al Gore?"

''Follower."

''Senator John Kerry?"

''Senator."

''Senator Ted Kennedy?"

''Fighter."

Clean elections bill gets 2d look

Remember the Clean Elections Law? In 1998, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly passed a public financing system to reduce the influence of special interests in campaigns and encourage outsiders to run. But entrenched Beacon Hill Democrats refused to fund it.

Now, the all-Democratic delegation to the House of Representatives is pushing a similar plan for federal elections -- and this time, entrenched-in-power Republicans are their most vigorous opponents. With the scandal-driven echoes of ''ethics reform" reverberating across the Capitol, Representative John F. Tierney of Salem figured it would be a good time to revive his ''Clean Money, Clean Elections" bill, first introduced in 1997.

The cost of the Massachusetts law was the sticking point, Tierney insisted. By contrast, the US government, by requiring reduced advertising rates on public airwaves, has the power to lower the cost of campaigns, and thereby the taxpayer tab for public funding.

The estimated total bill for the Tierney plan: $1.3 billion per election cycle.

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