WASHINGTON -- The White House, caught off guard by attacks on President Bush's economic package, found itself on the defensive as the president was confronted by visiting Democratic governors who spurned his request that they rally behind his plan.
The unexpected face-to-face ambush yesterday and a less-than-enthusiastic public response to the proposal added a new worrying note to the calculations of Bush advisers who had hoped that the unveiling of the long-awaited package would spark a rebound in the president's political fortunes.
Instead -- as Colorado Gov. Roy Romer stunned an East Room session by assailing what he called White House "gimmickry" -- a visibly angry Bush fired back "What do you think we ought to do?" and demanded that the governor "be specific."
The disruption of what the White House had hoped would be a congenial session set off a charged partisan debate as Republican governors stood up to defend Bush while other Democrats denounced a plan that one office holder said favored the rich and would add to "a sewer of debt."
Earlier, Bush had suggested that response to his plan was favorable. But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater acknowledged that while there are "a lot of people for it" there are also "a lot of people against it."
Bush was clearly caught by surprise as well in his White House meeting with the governors, who were in town for their annual meeting and had been expected to follow established etiquette of voicing criticism only in private.
While Republicans leaped to defend Bush, other Democrats joined in with their own criticisms of the president and his package. Gov. George Sinner of North Dakota warned that the White House plan would drive the nation further into a "sewer of debt."