Haunted by Katrina, Bush keeps eye on Calif. fires

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WASHINGTON, Oct 24 (Reuters) Haunted by the legacy of Hurricane Katrina, the White House is scrambling to make sure the Southern California wildfires don't become another public relations nightmare for President George W Bush.

His administration, faced with the worst US natural disaster since Katrina, has shifted into high gear to show it learned its lesson from the federal government's botched handling of the storm that devastated New Orleans in 2005.

Mindful of the severe damage the Katrina response caused to Bush's image and popularity, the White House has taken pains to depict him as deeply engaged in tracking the latest crisis.

He was quick to declare a state of emergency in California, even going as far as anticipating Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's request by leaving behind a pre-approved order before leaving the Oval Office on Monday evening.

He has ordered top officials to the scene, a far cry from the sluggish Katrina response symbolized by his oft-ridiculed remark to then-disaster chief Michael Brown: ''Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.'' And Bush, widely criticized for taking too long to visit storm-ravaged New Orleans, canceled plans to travel to St.

Louis and will instead make a day trip to California tomorrow.

''Yes, Katrina was not handled well,'' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said curtly when peppered with questions about lessons learned. ''The president accepted responsibility for that, and then he took action to fix it.'' As Bush sweeps in for a first-hand look at the damage, one thing is sure -- there will be no photo of the president gazing out the window of Air Force One at the devastation below.

Bush's overflight of flooded New Orleans still stands as the emblematic post-Katrina picture of his second-term woes.

In the aftermath, public confidence, already declining due to his handling of the Iraq war, took a major hit, and his approval ratings have never recovered.

CONSOLER-IN-CHIEF With less than 15 months left in office, Bush has started to acknowledge his struggle to remain relevant. Playing consoler-in-chief, a role perfected by Bush's Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, remains an important way for a lame-duck president to stay in the public eye.

''I want the people in Southern California to know that Americans all across this land care deeply about them,'' Bush told reporters after a Cabinet meeting. ''We offer our prayers and hopes that all will turn out fine in the end.'' But even before he sets foot in California, Bush's visit is stirring controversy. Democratic Lt Gov John Garamendi called it a ''public relations'' move.

''I've got some doubt about the value of President Bush coming out here,'' he told MSNBC's ''Hardball.'' ''I just hope ...

he brings more than he brought to New Orleans.'' Garamendi also voiced concern that Bush's trip could distract from firefighting efforts in southern California, where more than half million people have been driven from their homes.

On the East Coast, radio talk show callers had a different complaint. Many pointed out how eager Bush seemed to visit California, where the fire victims in many cases are affluent suburbanites, compared to his earlier reluctance to join New Orleans' mostly poor urban dwellers.

Thousands of evacuees have sought shelter in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, evoking memories of the thousands left stranded in the New Orleans Superdome after Katrina in 2005.

In contrast to the chaotic scene at the Superdome, however, Qualcomm offered yoga and acupuncture for stressed-out adults, clowns and candy for bored kids and even kosher meals.

Reuters AE DB2358

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