BUSH WANTS TO WIN ON SOCIAL SECURITY. BUT HE WANTS TO WIN THE POLITICS OF THE FIGHT JUST AS MUCH

Of all the people President Bush clasped hands with at 9:01 p.m. in the House chamber, one cantankerous character emerged from the crowd for special treatment: Bill Thomas, chairman of the all-powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Thomas famously hijacked the Social Security debate by proposing a wide array of ambitious policies (like a sales tax) that the White House wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. He went on to speak less than flatteringly about the president's strategy on Social Security, comparing the domestic priority to a "dead horse."

So how did Bush greet his troublemaker in chief? With a firm handshake that quickly turned into a brotherly thumb clench. It looked for a moment as if they might arm wrestle right there on the floor of the House.

But this is a president who knows his political capital might be wasted in an open display of machismo with a so-called congressional friend. So he and his aides have been unusually welcoming to Thomas, praising him for his input and his wonderfully useful ideas. For now, it's clear that Bush and Thomas are--for a brief moment of arm wrestling on a single issue--political equals.

That was before his speech. On the way out of the chamber, the president made time for a few Democrats. While John Kerry and Barbara Boxer dashed for the door (and the TV cameras), Bush reached back to the second row of senators to embrace Joe Lieberman. Going way beyond handshake territory, the two men hugged in the sort of cheek-to-cheek fashion that is so popular among Frenchmen and certain Arab leaders.

Why the special treatment for the man who was Al Gore's running mate in 2000? Because Lieberman has been locked in a close embrace on Iraq since the war began. He's also one of the very few Democrats who is willing to nestle up to Republicans on Social Security. Lieberman, a fervently New Democrat, has already met with Republicans to explore the possibility of compromise--which the president sorely needs to beat any filibuster.

Other crossovers, like Jim Jeffords--the one-time Republican from Vermont who now sits with the Dems--earned a more distant greeting. Bush walked within two feet of Jeffords and simply waved.

In normal times on normal issues, such body language might not matter. But the president's entire domestic agenda rests on Social Security--and his Social Security plans are already in trouble. The Democrats hissed as one when the president urged Congress to "join together" on the issue. Then they heckled him with shouts of "No!" as he threatened "sudden and severe cuts" in benefits if they failed to act.

But a bigger sign of the battle ahead was the GOP's response. Sure, they rose to their feet at the right moments. But they saved their cheers and their passion for another subject: Iraq. Even the president grew more animated, more urgent and more convincing when he was talking about the Iraqi elections. It's clear he has the stomach for the fight in Iraq, but it's unclear whether he and his Republican supporters have the stomach for Social Security.

Which raises the question: why try? Was the president indulging in some Hamlet-like dithering when he suggested he might consider other options, like limiting benefits to rich retirees or raising the retirement age? Not likely. Bush likes to think of himself as a big thinker and a reformer, and he'd love nothing more than a historic remaking of this cornerstone of the New Deal.

But failing that, he'd love to win the politics of the fight, even if he loses the legislation. That strategy--call it the seeds of the 2006 congressional campaign--means forcing the Democrats into a corner while staging a raid on their base.

The base Bush is eyeing was clear from his State of the Union: young voters and African-Americans, two groups that voted heavily for John Kerry last year. Bush's beloved investment accounts are being sold directly to younger voters, for whom Social Security means about as much as the words "retirement planning."

Beyond Social Security, the president made an extended appeal to African-Americans. First, he unveiled Laura Bush's mission to confront "gang life." Then he voiced his support for the landmark HIV/AIDS law, the Ryan White Act. (He also acknowledged that African-Americans suffer the highest rate of new infection--something his own veep admitted he knew nothing about in his TV debate last fall.) Finally, Bush made an unexpected commitment to use more DNA evidence "to prevent wrongful conviction" and to train defense lawyers in death penalty cases. Of all the issues that dogged him as Texas governor, none reached the level of his enthusiastic record on the death penalty. Bush never came close to his new position in the State of the Union in talking about the rights of defendants in such cases. The result: the first people to rise to their feet were members of the Congressional Black Caucus--who have already heard the president's special pitch on Social Security for African-Americans.

In practical terms, the political fight of the president's new term will be far less civil. When the president suggested he was open to ideas, he named three former members of Congress and one former president: Tim Penny, John Breaux, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bill Clinton. All of them Democrats. And while none of them support Bush's current plans, their very names threaten the current batch of Democrats with one of two fates: looking like obstructionists or seeming like they're out of the mainstream.

That's the underlying message Bush takes with him on Thursday and Friday as he travels to five states--the home to several moderate Democrats and key players in the Social Security battle. Following protocol, all seven Democrats--Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Bill Nelson of Florida--were all invited to travel with Bush on Air Force One and to attend the rallies in each state. Three--Lincoln, Pryor and Nelson--declined the invitation, claiming prior engagements. Sources tell NEWSWEEK that upon receiving the president's invite, the seven Democrats and key staffers huddled in a strategy session to determine whether to attend the trip, how to coordinate their responses and, in the words of one Senate aide, "determine how to use their trip to our advantage."

For their part, the president's aides insist it's too early to talk about targeting seats. After all, they say, nobody knows what the vote count looks like yet. That may be true about Social Security. But everyone knows how to count Blue Democrats from the Red States. The only question for Democrats is whether they wave from a polite distance or start the arm wrestling right now.