Ever since Ronald Reagan's days, there has been a surprise guest at the State of the Union Message. Last night's was none other than ... Vice President Dick Cheney.

A senior administration official told the White House press corps before the speech, "Don't read anything into it." Well, sorry, I am. The vice president appearing in public with the president was a defiant little act saying we won't be cowed. Last time Bush gave a major speech on Sept. 20, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia sat in that vaunted seat behind the president. The veep was in his undisclosed secure location. Under the Byzantine rules of the U.S. Congress, Byrd is third in line for the presidency.

Last night, I couldn't actually see Cheney or President Bush during this speech. I decided to go in person to the Capitol instead of watching it on TV. Wedged against a wall in the press gallery directly above the president, I shared his view of Congress instead of most of America's view of him. What struck me first was how small the chamber is. Bush gives his best speeches not into a remote camera or at a cavernous hall, but in intimate settings just like this (and he does even better one-on-one. I had already read a copy of his speech, and I knew it would be good, though not as resounding as either his Sept. 20 or his Inaugural Address. Most reporters had stayed back at their offices. A good, well-delivered speech seemed a foregone conclusion.

What a difference a war makes. During the campaign, reporters always listened carefully to Bush's stump speeches--no matter how many times they'd heard it--in anticipation of bloopers. Even in the early days of the war, we chortled about "misunderestimating" or cringed about how we were going to get the "folks" who attack us. Bush was undeterred by the criticism. (He still comes up with Bushisms, though not nearly as often. The other day he talked about being in the war for the "long pull," instead of the long haul. One reporter cracked that it was barbecue terminology.) After his aides called him on his language gaffes, he burst into the senior staff cabin on Air Force One at one point and shouted with mock anger: "I'm going to misunderestimate folks!"

It was not the playful Bush on display Tuesday night, but the forceful and even articulate one. There had been debate even last week in the administration as to whether or not the president should name names in his speech. In the end, he did point the finger in warning at North Korea, Iran and Iraq. In the one truly memorable line in the speech, he called them the "axis of evil," intentionally ringing back to World War II. It wasn't just rhetorical flourish when he talked about "mothers huddled over their dead children" in Iraq--victims of Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons. He is building psychological and international support for expanding the war, but he's doing it slowly. This was not an immediate ultimatum, but a ratcheting up of what will be incremental pressure on Saddam.

There was more name-calling. Bush went out of his way to thank Sen. Ted Kennedy for his help passing the education bill. "I even had nice thing to say about my friend Ted Kennedy," he quipped, prompting a standing ovation for the Democratic veteran. Even though Kennedy doesn't agree with Bush on much more than education, the White House likes him because his rules of political engagement are so clear: compromise. "The folks at the Crawford coffee shop couldn't quite believe it, but our work on this bill shows what is possible if we set aside posturing and focus on results," Bush said.

But the president's nod to bipartisanship was not always echoed in the chamber. Once the president stopped talking about the war and moved to the economy and his domestic agenda, the floor looked like a wave crashing up against a stone wall. The House Republicans would stand, then the Senate Republicans and then the ovation would stop dead at the center aisle, which divides the parties. "On these two key issues, trade and energy, the House of Representatives has acted to create jobs--and I urge the Senate to pass this legislation," Bush said to rowdy cheers from House GOPers who started chanting "Work, work, work!" to goad their colleagues.

Two names he did not mention were Osama bin Laden and Enron. He was trying to keep the focus off the Al Qaeda fugitive, as well as the former friend, Kenny Boy Lay. Instead, he called for new "safeguards for 401(k) and pension plans." We've been told that the president is "hot" about what happened to Enron employees. That he has compared Lay's actions to a captain leaving a sinking ship before his crew. But he is also hot that Enron could distract from his agenda. He and the vice president are passionate about fighting the General Accounting Office lawsuit that is trying to force Cheney to provide records from his energy task force.

Aides say the two men really see it as a constitutional battle. "It's as if they are saying, bring it on," says one GAO official. Bush leaves Washington today for a two-day swing that will try to leave Enron, and any perception that he is too allied with corporate interests, behind. He'll do a folksy town hall meeting in Winston-Salem, N.C., and talk a lot about the little guy and jobs in Daytona and Atlanta. "We will prevail in the war," Bush declared last night, "and we will defeat this recession!"

The war is clearing moving on to several new fronts. And with his prominent appearance last night and in all of his recent interviews (about Enron and the GAO), the vice president is clearly there to help fight it.