LAKE WALES, Fla. – President Bush (search) comforted residents in hurricane-battered Florida for the fifth time in six weeks on Wednesday, delivering sympathy and promises of aid to hard-hit citrus growers in a crucial part of the politically vital state.
"These have been trying weeks for Americans across the Southeast, especially in this state," Bush said after surveying damage to a Central Florida farm that has had about a quarter of its business blown away by damage from three of the four storms. "Our nation is praying for the victims of these storms."
The president pressed Congress to quickly approve his latest request for emergency funding. On Monday, Bush asked for more than $7.1 billion to help Florida and other Southeastern states recover from the storms. It was his third request for supplemental storm aid, which all together would total more than $12 billion if lawmakers approve.
"The federal government is committed to helping people here get back on their feet," he said, speaking from a lectern that White House aides placed in front of the one downed tree that could be seen in the area.
Bush's stop, en route to Miami and Thursday night's debate against Democratic presidential rival John Kerry (search), put him in a fast-growing swing area in the center of the state, which ranks fourth in the nation in electoral votes with 27. On Thursday, before the debate, Bush was to visit another site of hurricane damage, heading for the town of Stuart on Florida's east coast where Hurricane Jeanne made landfall on Saturday night and where Hurricane Frances blew through three weeks before.
Bush spent about 25 minutes walking through part of a 4,000-acre farm owned by Marty and Pat McKenna, Republican donors and Bush supporters. Three layers of oranges scattered on the ground told the story: The darkest fruit, shriveled and black, had been left by Hurricane Charley, the first storm; yellow fruit was left by Frances, and green fruit had been stripped from the trees just days ago by Jeanne.
Most of the oranges remained on the trees, however — enough so that harvesters were still expected to arrive in a few weeks.
Karen McKenna, the wife of owner Marty McKenna, said the storms have been "crushing to business," estimating the state would ship just 180 million boxes of citrus, mostly oranges and grapefruits, down from 240 million boxes last year.
But, she said, "we will definitely bounce back."
GOP Rep. Adam Putnam, the area's congressman, predicted at least 40 percent of the state's citrus crop would be lost.
The hurricanes have all but halted campaigning in Florida, where the 2000 election was decided in Bush's favor by 537 votes. But Bush, with the power of incumbency at his disposal, has visited after every storm — helping to distribute ice and water and patting the backs of residents whose homes and possessions have been damaged.
Bush aides have also taken care after each storm to note the federal resources being funneled to the state and the president's role in securing disaster assistance for victims.
Bush surveyed hurricane damage on Aug. 15 in southwestern Florida; on Sept. 8 in Port St. Lucie, Fla.; and on Sept. 19 in the Florida Panhandle and Alabama. On Aug. 27, he received a briefing on Hurricane Charley (search) in a Miami firehouse, about 100 miles away from the nearest damage.
Florida Democratic Party Chairman Scott Maddox has accused Bush of traveling to Florida on taxpayer money so he can be seen in the important election state. The trip was Bush's 29th to Florida as president.
But White House press secretary Scott McClellan denied politics played any role, saying that Bush's response would be the same if a disaster struck a decidedly Democratic state.