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READY FOR RITA

Bush gets in gear for new storm response

WASHINGTON -- This time, President Bush is determined to get it right.

Harshly criticized for his slow response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush is projecting himself as a hands-on leader as Hurricane Rita draws near.

After announcing plans to visit his home state of Texas yesterday to get a firsthand look at emergency preparations, Bush abruptly canceled the trip to avoid interfering with search-and-rescue operations.

Bush still planned to monitor the storm from the US Northern Command in Colorado Springs, where the White House said he would personally oversee the federal government response.

''The president is doing the right thing to assure people that the federal government is much better prepared for Rita than it was for Katrina," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

''But everything that a president in trouble does is also at least partly political and designed to stop his slide in the polls," he said.

Bush's approval ratings have plummeted to all-time lows in recent polls. Most put his favorability at around 38 percent to 41 percent, and his image as a strong and decisive leader has taken a hit.

On Thursday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan dismissed suggestions that Bush's planned trip to San Antonio was mainly a photo opportunity, and the president himself said yesterday there was no danger he would get in the way of operations.

Hours later, the trip was off.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency decided to reposition search-and-rescue teams from San Antonio closer to the storm, McClellan said, ''and we didn't want to slow that decision up in any way."

Although the evacuation from Houston before Rita has been chaotic, with empty gas stations, disaster management specialists said the federal response this time was likely to mark a significant improvement over Katrina. Tens of thousands of people were then stranded in a flooded New Orleans without food and water, and law and order broke down.

''Given the president's gaping political wounds from Katrina, you're seeing the federal government weighing in with overwhelming force and supplies; the system is energized this time," said Craig Marks, who runs Blue Horizons, a consultancy on disaster management in North Carolina.

Pollster John Zogby said Bush's visit to Texas could help assure people that the government has learned the lessons from the Katrina debacle.

But Zogby said that even a much improved performance this time would not help Bush much politically.

''American public opinion has hardened," he said.

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