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THE NATION | REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

Bush Ends Month of Ranch, Rest and Reelection Work

The president is upbeat despite the many foreign and domestic policy challenges awaiting him.

August 30, 2003|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

CRAWFORD, Texas — Without breaking a sweat, President Bush collected at least $6.6 million in August for his reelection campaign. Not bad for a fellow on vacation.

No wonder the tanned president seemed in a good mood as he prepared to return to the White House today, ending his annual August sojourn to his Prairie Chapel ranch seven miles outside this Central Texas town.

Although the president and his aides are bracing for a challenging year ahead on the foreign and domestic policy fronts -- a year they hope will culminate in his reelection -- Bush's upbeat and congenial demeanor was unmistakable as he hosted a dinner party for reporters earlier this week. Under a sky that flashed with spectacular lightning, Bush commented at length on a variety of topics.

His remarks were off the record, per White House ground rules for the party. Suffice it to say that Bush did not shy away from any issue -- foreign or domestic -- that reporters raised, ranging from the California recall and the Middle East to baseball and the president's chances in 2004.

The conversations showed that even though he had spent much of his time battling brush at his ranch, catching up on his leisure reading, napping and fishing for bass, Bush remained connected to the affairs of state, large and small.

Indeed, he conferred by telephone with numerous foreign leaders, including those of Israel, Britain and India. He monitored the negotiations on Capitol Hill between the House and Senate on a bill to provide seniors with prescription drug coverage and visited all three West Coast states, in addition to Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.

On those trips, he also addressed six fund-raisers and participated in events aimed at touting his environmental credentials, an issue on which voters give him poor marks, polls show.

This week's dinner party was the first such bash for the White House media that the president and Mrs. Bush have hosted at their ranch. The poolside buffet featured fried chicken, cole slaw, potato salad, beans and jalapeno biscuits (followed by hot peach cobbler, with optional ice cream).

Throughout the two-hour gathering, the backslapping, nickname-conferring, quip-swapping commander in chief was so convivial that one reporter, newly assigned to the White House, later wondered aloud why Bush does not mingle more often with those assigned to cover him.

Before the dinner, the president led a 45-minute motorcade tour of the ranch. With his dog, Barney, in his lap, Bush took the steering wheel of his pickup after cramming several reporters into the cab and onto the truck bed. The rest of the press corps trailed in other vehicles.

Along the way, many of the reporters got their first close-up view of the president's 1,583-acre ranch, including an array of maturing indigenous flora and the local wildlife the plants are beginning to attract. They also saw the results of the cedar-clearing efforts that had been led by a chainsaw-wielding president -- as well as the Sisyphean nature of that task. Some of the president's guests later confessed that only now do they understand his love for the ranch, with canyons and streams that are starkly beautiful even during the sweltering days of summer.

Back in Washington, Bush will not be sitting still for long. On Monday, he travels to Richfield, Ohio, to speak to union workers and their families, part of a concerted drive to court labor support.

On Thursday, he is scheduled to talk about the economy at the Chamber of Commerce in Kansas City, Mo., and he will focus on the same topic in Indianapolis on Friday. He also will attend a fund-raiser in Indianapolis.

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