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Failure of the government in hurricane planning and relief could hurt Bush, Republican Party

WASHINGTON—President Bush rushes back to the Gulf Coast on Monday in a second attempt to demonstrate his concern and counter the impression that his administration's response to the calamity has undermined him and hurt the Republican Party.

The fallout could be seen first in the president's agenda, then in next year's congressional elections. Already, Republicans in Congress are signaling an unprecedented willingness to scrutinize and challenge the administration, with calls for hearings into why things went so badly.

The haunting images of black faces pleading for help in New Orleans could set back Republican efforts to make inroads among black voters and jeopardize Bush's image as a forceful leader who safeguards Americans' lives.

Said independent pollster John Zogby: "Republicans will go into next year wounded and without a popular president to help them."

Bush still has time to recover, particularly if relief efforts take hold and then succeed better than expected. One quick poll Sunday found Americans divided over Bush's performance in recent days, hardly the unanimous approval he won after the 2001 terrorist attacks, but also not a solid rejection.

Yet he also faces the prospect of more bad news continuing to sour the public mood. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said Sunday the death toll from the hurricane is in the thousands.

"His approval numbers will go down," Zogby said. "Republicans will be hurt because they lead Congress, they lead the federal government."

Bush faces complaints and congressional hearings into why the federal government wasn't better prepared for such a disaster and why it reacted slowly.

The Bush administration Sunday suggested that local officials share at least some of the blame.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Sunday, for example, that federal officials were unaware of dangerous conditions among people crowded into a New Orleans convention center because they hadn't been told of it. "I was on a video conference with state officials and didn't get any information about this," he said on the Fox News Sunday program.

Chertoff, whose department oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, added later on CNN that the inability of the state and local authorities to communicate and coordinate their responses "really caused the cascading series of breakdowns." FEMA "plays a supporting role," he said.

But Democrats noted that Americans forces airlifted food to Afghanistan on the first day of a U.S.-led invasion and started humanitarian airlifts into Baghdad three days after Saddam Hussein was toppled.

Rep. James McCrery, R-La., choked up and spoke of the frustration dealing with the federal bureaucracy. Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the majority leader, wants hearings into the Department of Homeland Security and its Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"If we can't respond faster than this to an event we saw coming across the Gulf for days, then why do we think we're prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?" asked former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

If that sentiment takes hold, it could erode one of Bush's greatest political strengths, the belief that he's decisively and effectively overhauled the federal government not only to better protect against terrorist attacks but also to deal with the aftermath.

"If people start asking about the state of our national preparedness, that's bad for Bush," said Mary Stuckey, who teaches political communication at Georgia State University.

The president's style could hurt him as well.

Bush kept his normal schedule during the first days of the hurricane and its aftermath. He traveled to San Diego, then back to his Texas ranch. He didn't return to Washington until Wednesday, viewing some of the storm damage from the window of Air Force One.

He went to the Gulf Coast on Friday. He said the results were unacceptable. But when he addressed the official in charge of the disaster relief, Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown, Bush offered congratulations. "Brownie," Bush said, "you're doing a heck of a job."

When he got to New Orleans, he toured only by helicopter. He did not meet with any of the angry survivors who were asking for food, water or medical attention.

That was a stark contrast to his appearance in New York after the 2001 attacks, when he spent hours with the families of the dead and missing and climbed aboard a debris-covered fire truck, one arm around a New York firefighter and the other brandishing a bullhorn that came to symbolize his success at rallying the country.

" Where was the bullhorn? Where was his hard hat?" asked Paul Light, a political scientist at New York University. "The president has exposed himself to criticism by not reacting faster, not showing greater concern for what was going on."

The first place Bush could feel political fallout is in Congress.

Republicans plan hearings into the federal response that could expose mistakes and oversights inside Bush's government. Also, some Republican proposals, such as one to eliminate the estate tax on multimillion-dollar estates, could get less support at a time when Congress rushes to spend more money on relief.

The hurricane is unlikely to affect the rest of the Bush agenda, however. His proposal to overhaul Social Security was already at death's door. His nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court was on a glide path to Senate approval.

The longer-term impact could come in next year's congressional elections. Bush already faced the prospect of entering the election year with the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.

Analysts say there are still dozens of things that could change the political landscape in a year. Iraq could get better or worse. Gas prices could rise or retreat.

"We're so far away," said University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan. "At worst, it will be one of the several things people might point to as they make up their minds."

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

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