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Where Bush Will Ride Out Storm Is as Uncertain as Rita

Times Staff Writers

The White House scrambled Friday to find the right place for President Bush to be as Hurricane Rita headed toward the Texas-Louisiana coastline. The task proved just as tricky as predicting the hurricane’s path.

Bush was all set to fly to the storm area in Texas, where he planned to observe emergency personnel in action at a San Antonio supply depot. But that plan was scrubbed when the emergency operations group was moved closer to the coast.

Instead, Bush wound up going directly to Colorado, where the Defense Department’s Northern Command -- responsible for domestic troop deployments -- is monitoring storm developments.

How Bush would spend much of the weekend and when he would return to Washington went unannounced.

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But for a White House accused of underreacting to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina only a few weeks ago, the scheduling decisions reflected a premium on showing the president engaged in the new problem and demonstrating leadership.

“If you can give a pep talk and a morale boost to the military and the National Guard and the Red Cross and the local emergency workers, that means a lot,” said Republican strategist Charlie Black.

Some obvious options for Bush were ruled out. He wouldn’t stay in Washington, where demonstrators were massing for a huge protest against the Iraq war. He probably would avoid his ranch near Crawford, Texas, where he was criticized for spending the first few days of Katrina instead of visiting the disaster scene. He would want to show attention to the storm, but not get so close that he could become a distraction to rescue officials.

“One thing I won’t do is get in the way,” Bush told reporters before leaving Washington.

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Planning the president’s weekend had rarely presented so many problems.

Bush’s critics thought the stagecraft might backfire by creating the perception that he was staging photo-ops with rescue workers instead of managing the crisis from Washington.

“I guess politics is like physics: An underreaction will produce an equal and opposite overreaction,” said Democratic strategist James Carville. “What’s he going to do in Colorado that he can’t do in the White House? You can call anywhere in the world from there.”

Until it was canceled, the San Antonio stop would have had the president appearing side by side with military commanders and first responders -- a different image than the photographs of Bush holding a guitar at a West Coast event on the day Katrina struck New Orleans.

“This is so the president can have a firsthand account of the federal government’s preparedness and response efforts,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. “This will give the president a firsthand look at our operations.” But the rescue teams had to move suddenly when the storm’s path shifted.

Salvaged was Bush’s scheduled breakfast Saturday morning with troops in Colorado Springs. He plans to participate in a hurricane briefing and tour the Northern Command’s Emergency Operations Center, which was set up after the Sept. 11 attacks to coordinate military operations within the U.S.

“I’m going to go to our Northcom headquarters to watch the interface between our United States military and ... state and local authorities,” Bush said before leaving.

The White House said the stop in Colorado Springs would help Bush determine how much of a role U.S. military forces could assume in emergency response efforts, including law enforcement functions now prohibited by federal law.

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Beyond Saturday morning’s events, Bush’s itinerary remained “in flux,” McClellan said. Late Friday, tentative plans were made for a visit to an emergency shelter in Austin, Texas, and an event at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio.

Chen reported from Colorado Springs and Vieth from Washington.


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