By CHARLES BABINGTON
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama, having watched his Republican adversaries pound him for weeks, got his turn Tuesday, using his State of the Union speech to land the first major counterpunch of the still-forming 2012 election.
It came before a prime-time audience of millions that the GOP candidates can only envy, even if their fiery debates are turning heads.
Obama didn't mention Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich in his third State of the Union address. But the GOP contenders were never far from mind. Obama demanded economic fairness for Americans on the same day that Romney revealed paying a relatively modest 14 percent in taxes on his $21 million in 2010 income.
"You can call this class warfare all you want," Obama said, chiding Republicans. "But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense."
Obama could not use the State of the Union's formal setting for a purely political speech, of course. But he invited a symbolically telling guest to the crowded House chamber: the secretary who works for investor Warren Buffett, a billionaire who says the U.S. tax code unwisely lets him pay a lower tax rate than his clerical staff.
Obama called his new proposal for a minimum 30 percent tax on millionaires the "Buffett rule."
It would have doubled Romney's tax bill. It also dings Gingrich, who wants to eliminate the capital gains tax. As Romney noted in Monday's GOP debate in Tampa, Fla., he would pay essentially no income taxes under Gingrich's plan.
The tax quarrel is one of the philosophical differences splitting the two parties, which have grown so hostile in Congress that it's impossible for the president to pass anything but the blandest of initiatives. Last year's showdowns over spending bills and the debt ceiling brought the government to the brink of shutdowns and triggered a credit rating downgrade.
Yet a number of lawmakers, especially those elected with tea party help, answer to constituents who detest compromise and say a federal government meltdown might not be a bad idea.
Congress' GOP leaders declared Obama's ideas dead in dismissive statements early Tuesday, hours before his speech. Obama went the through the motions anyway, pitching ideas for job training, clean energy and other topics.
These issues will play a role in the general election, once the GOP picks its nominee. But the dominant issue will be Obama's handling of jobs and the economy.
That severely limits his ability to focus on his first three years in office, except for foreign achievements such as the killing of Osama bin Laden. And it forces him to argue that he still can accomplish good things despite a bitterly gridlocked legislative branch.
Until Tuesday, the Republicans' wildly unpredictable presidential race had dominated political news, leaving Obama largely on the sidelines. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Gingrich, the former House speaker, express open disdain for the president, blaming him for nearly every lost job and foreclosed home.
Romney was particularly pointed Tuesday in Tampa, one day after a Republican debate widely seen as his best in a while.
"High unemployment and record home foreclosures," Romney said. "Debt that's too high and opportunities that are too few. This is the real state of our union. But you won't hear stories like these in President Obama's address tonight."
Obama "will make the opening argument in his campaign against a 'do-nothing Congress,"' Romney said. "It's shameful for a president to use the State of the Union to divide our nation."
Actually, a "do-nothing Congress" is only one of Obama's planned campaign themes. His aides know the economy might undo him, but they also detect big vulnerabilities in the Republican candidates.
Gingrich has a long history of unorthodox ideas, combative relations with supposed allies and lucrative Washington consulting contracts, which Romney is highlighting this week.
Romney's record at the corporate-restructuring firm Bain Capital proved to be a ho-hum issue in the Republican primary. But it might trouble independent voters next fall, when Democrats would paint Romney as an uncaring plutocrat who pays low taxes and eliminates jobs with barely a thought.
The approaching campaign might emancipate Obama in a sense. The gridlocked and toxically divisive capital can be a dreary place. He may not relish another grueling year of campaigning across the country. But at least he can get away from Washington and utter a few ideas without having them immediately declared dead, foolish or worse.
Obama likes the phrase, "You campaign in poetry but govern in prose." Today's more apt rendering might be, "You campaign in Reeboks and govern in leg irons."
Running shoes surely aren't the preferred attire of any president. They'd rather use the office's power and prestige to pursue policy goals.
In Washington's poisonous atmosphere, however, running for re-election might give Obama his best chance to break free from the logjams for a while and try to recapture the enthusiasm and joy of 2008.
Romney, Gingrich or some other Republican will be waiting, eager to make him answer for a nation still trying to turn an economic corner.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Charles Babington covers politics for The Associated Press.