AUSTIN, Texas – Trying to revive his image as a take-charge commander in chief after his absence in the early aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush monitored Hurricane Rita on Saturday from a military command center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and huddled with officials at Texas’ Emergency Operations Center in Austin.

The day of carefully choreographed events was designed to show a proactive and engaged president and to reverse sliding poll numbers that are reaching new lows, in large part because of Americans’ displeasure with the Bush administration’s response to Katrina.

Hoping to erase the image of Bush as an aloof leader who got his first glimpse of Katrina’s destructive power from Air Force One as it skimmed 1,700 feet over the Gulf Coast, the president flew west on Friday as Hurricane Rita approached. The trip also took Bush away from the White House on Saturday as a large anti-war protest took place in Washington.

Bush witnessed Rita’s assault on the Louisiana-Texas border Saturday morning from the situation room at the U.S. Northern Command headquarters in the Rocky Mountain foothills of Colorado Springs, nearly 1,000 miles from the storm.

With colorful presentations on large plasma screens and slide projections, Bush received a detailed briefing on federal plans to deal with potential flooding in east Texas and western Louisiana and possible disruptions to the U.S. energy supply.

“The first order of business now is the search and rescue teams, to pull people out of harm’s way,” Bush told reporters following the briefing. “Just had an assessment by General (Russel) Honore of Lake Charles, Louisiana: It got hit hard. We’ve got teams on the ground, beginning to analyze the situation and prepare the necessary response to stabilize the situation, and, more importantly, stabilize there as well.”

Bush, who likes to tease mayors for having to tend to the smallest municipal detail down to filling potholes, used his weekend radio address to provide a laundry list of what federal assets were going where to deal with Rita.

But the White House’s efforts to restore Bush’s public persona as a hands-on leader hit several snags over the weekend as Rita was downgraded from a Category 3 hurricane at landfall to a tropical storm that rumbled northward.

Administration officials scrubbed a Bush trip to San Antonio at the last minute on Friday when the search and rescue groups he was supposed to meet moved to a different location to be closer to Rita’s landfall.

Aside from the Northern Command stop, the rest of Bush’s travel schedule – usually detailed to the second – was largely a mystery, giving the trip the flavor of a journey to nowhere.

Some critics have complained that the president was flying around looking for a “bullhorn moment,” a chance to recapture the stature he earned in a defining moment when he stood amid the rubble of New York’s World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and addressed the crowd through a bullhorn.

That moment helped solidify Bush’s image as commander in chief, a no-nonsense leader who knew what he had to do and how to do it, and it helped propel his approval ratings into the high 80s.

Since then, his popularity has plummeted, weighed down by the war in Iraq, soaring gasoline prices and his efforts to revamp the nation’s Social Security system.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Bush with a 42 percent approval rating, the lowest the survey has recorded during his presidency.


“He’s trying to compensate for a policy failure in the response to Katrina,” said Richard F. Foglesong, a political science professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. “One can almost pity the president in that he can say all the right things and it does little for him in terms of improving his poll numbers and getting people who support him back on his side. He’s not getting any traction. From this president, people want results, not rhetoric.”

The closest the president came to finding a “bullhorn moment” was on Saturday, when Bush noticed a Sept. 11 memorial at Northern Command that featured the famous picture of him speaking through the bullhorn at the World Trade Center. He autographed the photo.

(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Drew Brown contributed to this report.)

(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-09-24-05 1741EDT

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