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ON THE AFTERNOON OF the day of the State of the Union address, Bill Clinton held two rehearsals of his speech in the White House family theater. He was relaxed, in a plaid shirt, drinking tea, cracking wise. Present were a sprinkling of advisers and speechwriters and Vice President Al Gore. "Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of the 104th Congress," the President intoned, then smiled. "Thank you and good night." Laughter.

Historians, take note: that would have been the briefest State of the Union on record. The presidential joke had a certain self-deprecating quality, as Clinton's infamously long 1995 address lasted 81 minutes. Just a year ago, pundits and politicos were saying "Thank you and good night" to the Clinton presidency, but after the President's trim, one-hour speech last week, it was morning in Bill Clinton's America. The man written off after the 1994 elections was suddenly looking like the man to beat--especially when compared with Bob Dole and his not-ready-for-prime-time response. Ladies and gentlemen, the Comeback Kid is in the theater.

One instant poll showed that 69% of viewers liked what they heard, while another suggested that voters preferred Clinton's vision of America to that of the Republicans by a wide margin. If it weren't for Mrs. Clinton's increasing immersion in Whitewater, which included an appearance before a grand jury last Friday, the week would have been one of Clinton's best. Only last July, pollster Stan Greenberg wrote a memo saying the President was "fundamentally mispositioned for 1996." Now Clinton's position is on the inside track with the competition in disarray. How did the President manage it?

Slouching to the Sensible Center. The message of the 1994 elections was to move to the middle; that's where presidencies are won. And that was the place Stealth adviser Dick Morris wanted Clinton to be. Morris counseled Clinton that he could neutralize the ascendant Republican message by co-opting it.

Last week's State of the Union message was pieced together by Don Baer, Bruce Reed and Michael Waldman, senior aides ideologically in synch with Morris. The speech tapped into the less-from-Washington and more-from-ourselves rhetoric heard on the Republican campaign trail. Clinton declared that "the era of Big Government is over" and talked about family values, personal responsibility and neighborhood charity. "We're the ones who are pro-family, pro-community, pro-spirituality," wails G.O.P. pollster Frank Luntz, "and yet Bill Clinton is using the language and we're not." House Republicans are muttering that Clinton hijacked their agenda. But to paraphrase T.S. Eliot's line about poets, good politicians borrow, great politicians steal. Now Republicans are finally learning what Bill Clinton means by common ground: your land is my land.

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