WASHINGTON -- Republicans presented President Clinton on last night as a reluctant convert to the cause of a smaller, cheaper government more attuned to the needs of the middle class.
Casting themselves as the authentic agents of change, the Republicans also suggested that Mr. Clinton's actions would not match his conservative words.
"While at times tonight some of the president's ideas sounded pretty Republican, the fact remains that he has been opposed to the balanced-budget amendment, he proposed even more government spending, and he imposed the biggest tax increase in American history," Gov. Christie Whitman of New Jersey said in remarks prepared for delivery on behalf of her party.
She referred to the 1993 budget package, which raised income tax rates for the upper middle class and the rich, eliminated various deductions and raised the amount of Social Security benefits subject to tax.
"On Election Day, you gave us your trust," she said. "We accept your mandate. President Clinton, you must accept it as well."
By and large, congressional Republicans were muted yesterday, presenting themselves as respectful of the presidency but consumed with their own agenda.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich struck a conciliatory note at his news conference yesterday. "I am not going to go tonight and sit there and say, now, which pieces can I punch?" he said.
"This is the president of the United States, coming to the nation to deliver the State of the Union as he sees it," Mr. Gingrich said.
Other Republican leaders suggested that they believed they could afford to be magnanimous.
"He's on a high wire, we're on a pair of skates," said Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican Conference. "We don't have to worry about all these political decisions the White House has to make to keep him on the high wire."
Mr. Boehner said he believed the dominant political event of the week would be not the State of the Union Message, but the consideration and passage of a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget, which will reach the floor of the House today.
Mr. Boehner also said that on Monday there was a discussion at a Republican leadership meeting about the need to exercise some restraint yesterday in responding to the president's speech.
"We shouldn't make it any more difficult for them than it already is," Mr. Boehner said of the president and the Democrats. This strategy had its uses for the Republicans. Among other things, it gave them a break in the intense partisan struggle over Mr. Gingrich and his book deal that has dominated much of the news in recent days.
There were some sharper Republican responses yesterday. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, declared that Clinton "always gives a good speech," but added, "It's the president's deeds we're concerned with."
Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., declared, "The American people will not be fooled by a man who changes his opinions and agenda as frequently as the tides."
But Mrs. Whitman's address was largely an exercise in Republican image making, presenting the party as tested and proven on the state level, while ready to take its tax-cutting, government-trimming program to Washington.
Clearly trying to answer fears that the Republicans' economic program in their "Contract with America" is unattainable, Mrs. Whitman declared, "Here in New Jersey, like too many other governors, I was told my tax-cutting policies were a gimmick."
She added, "Our colleagues on Capitol Hill are facing the same opposition we did, the same cries of, 'It can't be done,' from the Washington-knows-best crowd."