President Bush's approval rating has returned to the peak of his presidency, with 79 percent of poll respondents giving him a favorable mark, according to a poll reported Monday night.

The 79 percent in The Washington Post-ABC News poll who said they approved "the way George Bush is handling his job as president" matches the high point recorded about a year ago after the invasion of Panama.The lowest approval rating for Bush, 51 percent, was recorded in the budget debates last fall, and the rating has been rising since then.

For the first time since October, the poll asked respondents whether "things in this country are generally going in the right direction," or had "gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track." There was a large increase in "right direction" answers.

The sample split 49-48 on the question, basically an even split though the "right direction" got the 49 percent share. In October, 79 percent of those questioned said things were on the wrong track, the largest such proportion of the decade, and only 19 percent said they were moving in the right direction.

Interviews with 1,015 adults Wednesday through Sunday showed 81 percent approving the way Bush is handling the war in the Persian Gulf, within a point or two of similar responses in two earlier surveys this month. Seventy-five percent approved going to war with Iraq.

However, only 28 percent said the war was going better than expected, down from 39 percent a week earlier, and 15 percent said it was going worse than expected, up from 7 percent.

Fifty-four percent said the war was "going about the way it was expected to," up from 50 percent.

The likely margin of uncertainty in the results was given as 31/2 percentage points either way.

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State of the nation

President Bush will weave together his domestic priorities with an explanation of what America is fighting for in the Persian Gulf in Tuesday night's State of the Union address, his spokesman says.

Bush was still making last-minute changes and fine-tuning the address, and he summoned his Cabinet to the White House Tuesday to preview the speech, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said. "There'll be some new programs, mostly domestic" unveiled in the annual address to Congress, Fitzwater said.

Fitzwater, who on Monday said the speech would be dominated by "a status report" on the war, told reporters Tuesday, "It's a speech where domestic (issues) and Persian Gulf are woven together in terms of national priorities and goals."

Bush is scheduled to deliver the nationally broadcast address to a joint session of Congress at 7 p.m. MST.