Wrapping his arms around newly homeless victims, greeting grimy firefighters and predicting a "better day ahead," President Bush on Thursday brought a dose of compassion to fire-ravaged Southern California.
But in touring by air and foot a region still ablaze in crisis, Bush also confronted a legacy of mismanagement in the face of natural disaster -- his administration's breakdown in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It is a legacy that haunts Bush and his party as Democrats prepare to make "competence" a central theme of next year's elections.
Bush and his aides repeatedly sought to convey a sense of efficiency and the image of a leader who both cared and was in command.
Gone was the impersonal Air Force One flyover of New Orleans that came to be seen as a symbol of Bush's detachment following Katrina. On Thursday, Bush made his aerial survey from the up-close vantage point of a helicopter. On the ground, he scuffed through the ashen remains of burned-out homes.
"To the extent people need the help of the federal government, we will help," the president said, his right arm draped over the shoulder of Kendra Jeffcoat, whose burned-out Rancho Bernardo home served as a backdrop for Bush's walking tour.
He invoked the contrast with Katrina most directly when he heaped praise on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for his leadership. Bush's plaudits for a fellow Republican appeared to be an indirect dig at Louisiana's Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
"It makes a significant difference when you have someone in the statehouse who's willing to lead," Bush said.
Apparently alluding to months of investigations after Katrina and widespread allegations that the White House had not always been candid, Bush thanked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, for asking questions about the response to the fires. "We'll give her the answers," Bush said.
As Bush tried to exorcise ghosts of disasters past, Democrats have been signaling their intention to try to pin those failures on next year's Republican presidential nominee. Many strategists in both parties believe Bush's unpopularity could be a drag for the GOP.
Already, the leading GOP candidates are moving to inoculate themselves from the competency issue.
Politically, the fires "only matter if the White House screws it up," said one Republican operative, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing the issue.
"If anything goes wrong, it could cement or at least reinforce the image that many people have," he said.
The Democrats' presidential front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, repeatedly has invoked Katrina and often mentions the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, as a symbol of the White House's penchant for appointing unqualified officials. She did so again in a speech last week, ridiculing the "incompetence, the indifference, the insensitivity of the Bush administration."
Thursday's events -- and the federal response from the start -- were designed to thwart such accusations. Even before Bush arrived, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who was criticized after Katrina for failing to realize the severity of conditions in New Orleans, had been dispatched to California.
Upon arrival in California, Bush boarded a helicopter for a half-hour aerial tour of the burned areas in Rancho Bernardo,flying from the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station to a football field at San Pasqual High School in Escondido.
Wearing an olive-colored shirt, the sleeves rolled up, and slacks, Bush then took his walking tour of Rancho Bernardo -- stopping at 18576 Lancashire, once the Jeffcoat home. Little remained except a spiral staircase draped with building material and a piece of wall bearing a turquoise and pink tile with the address.
Asked to rate the difference between the federal response to Katrina and the fires, the president said the question was better put to historians.
"My heart is with the Jeffcoats right now," he said. "The experts can figure out whether the response was perfect or not."
james.gerstenzang@ latimes.com email@example.com
Gerstenzang reported from California and Wallsten from Washington. Times staff writers Janet Hook in Washington and Michael Finnegan in Manchester, N.H., contributed to this report.