After Rice Testimony, Bush Leads Ranch Tour

Sitting in his white pickup truck, President Bush called national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) Thursday to tell her she had done a "great job" testifying before the Sept. 11 commission.

Later, Bush roamed his 1,600-acre ranch with about 20 representatives of hunting and fishing groups.

The president and his wife, sitting in the living room of their ranch home here, watched all three hours of Rice's testimony, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said.

Bush thought that Rice "did a terrific job" and that she articulated "the responsible actions the administration took before Sept. 11 and the aggressive actions the administration took after Sept. 11," Buchan said.

The president began the day by speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) about Iraq (search) and other issues.

The Kremlin (search) said Bush initiated the 20-minute call, which came at a time of spiraling violence in Iraq. Russia has no troops in Iraq.

The Kremlin said "serious distress was expressed about the absence of progress in regulating regional problems and the escalation of violence." White House officials would reveal no details of the conversation.

The official agenda of his tour and meeting with hunting and fishing advocates was a discussion of Bush's "conservation agenda," aides said, but the invitation was also an election-year bid for gun owners' votes.

The groups represented included Ducks Unlimited, Quail Unlimited, the Safari Club International, the National Rifle Association, the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Some of Bush's guests for the one-hour visit were leaders of the organizations, while others were journalists from their affiliated magazines who interviewed Bush. The visitors also met with James Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Bush is an avid fisherman and occasionally casts into the bass pond just steps from his Crawford, Texas, ranch home. On New Year's Day, he went quail hunting in southern Texas with George H.W. Bush -- the most celebrated member of Ducks Unlimited.

But one of the current president's own aides has strongly criticized the practices of one of the hunting groups visiting the ranch on Thursday.

Matthew Scully, a presidential speechwriter, criticized Safari Club International for mistreating animals in his 2002 book, "Dominion."

The club's members pay up to $20,000 to hunt elephants, lions or other animals, either abroad or in American "safari ranches," where the animals are penned in by fences. Scully said the organization turned nature "into an endless theme park and the creatures into so many animatronic figures."

Scully did not return a phone call from The Associated Press seeking comment.

A spokesman for Democrat John Kerry used the ranch tour to charge that the president is "systematically dismantling, neutralizing or defunding virtually every meaningful law, regulation and program that protects or restores fish and wildlife." The administration has broken a promise to fully finance conservation programs, Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said.

The president has no public appearances until Sunday, when his parents, mother-in-law and daughters were gathering, along with Rice, at the ranch.

They planned to attend Easter Sunday services at Fort Hood, as they did last year, officials said. Seven soldiers from the 1st Cavalry at Fort Hood died Sunday in attack in Baghdad.

Bush is spending a long break here through Monday, when he is to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (search).