WASHINGTON - Democratic Sen. Jim Webb delivered a blistering eight-minute response to President Bush's State of the Union address last night, promising an aggressive challenge to Bush's Iraq and economic policies from the newly empowered Democratic majority in Congress.

"The president took us into this war recklessly," the freshman senator from Virginia said. "We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable - and predicted - disarray that has followed. The war's costs to our nation have been staggering."

"Many, including myself, warned even before the war began that it was unnecessary, that it would take our energy and attention away from the larger war on terrorism, and that invading Iraq would leave us strategically vulnerable," Webb said.

Webb held up a picture of his father as a young Air Force captain. Webb said that as a small boy, he took the picture to bed to remind him of his father's sacrifice. Now, Webb's son is serving in Iraq as a Marine infantryman.

"We need a new direction," said Webb, a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. "Not one step back from the war against international terrorism. Not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos. But an immediate shift toward strong, regionally based diplomacy."

Democrats owe their newfound control of the Senate to Webb's slim and improbable victory over George Allen last fall. Webb - who served as secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan - also embodies his party's central message: a determination to oppose the Iraq war while supporting the troops who are there.

Webb has become a folk hero among liberals and Democratic bloggers for brusquely telling Bush at a White House event that questions from the president about Webb's son were "between me and my boy."

So after just three weeks as a U.S. senator, Webb became the choice of the Democratic leadership in the Senate and House to carry their blunt warning about Bush's new war strategy.

On the economy, he described a growing divide between rich and poor during the Bush presidency. "In short, the middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table," he said.

Aides said Webb took the speech seriously, vigorously rewriting the initial draft suggested by the offices of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. But like past State of the Union responders, Webb received much unsolicited advice. Asked why the speech grew from five minutes to more than eight, Webb communications director Jessica Smith said: "That's what happens when you have input from everyone."

Webb concluded his speech with comparisons to former Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt and with a warning for Bush:

"These presidents took the right kinds of actions, for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight, we are calling on this president to take similar action in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way."

Read a transcript of Webb's Democratic response via http://go.philly.com/webbEndText