STUART, Fla. – President Bush threw his arm around Florida hurricane victims and offered them his sympathy Thursday as he visited a recovery center on the battered Treasure Coast.
"How you doing?" Bush asked storm victims while making his fifth survey of Florida areas lashed by four hurricanes. Touring a Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) recovery center before Thursday night's debate with Sen. John Kerry (search), he hugged a woman as she dabbed her eyes and shared her story of the storms.
"You were hit pretty hard?" Bush asked one couple as he circulated among tables offering financial assistance and housing. At each table he dispensed sympathy in the form of pep talks, pats on the back and hugs.
The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (search), also comforted residents of this city 100 miles north of Miami. The White House arranged for a large pack of local and national reporters to capture the scene, which came about 11 hours before the first Bush-Kerry debate.
At the Martin County, Fla., Red Cross center, Bush thanked volunteers for showing "the true heart of America. We long to help somebody when they're hurting."
Bush was going to be in the area for the debate, so he slipped in the tour of hurricane damage in the state that decided the 2000 election. Democrats said they smelled politics.
Bush has campaigned aggressively in Florida since becoming president, and when he arrived for hurricane tour No. 4 on Wednesday he was paying his 29th visit to the state.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan (search) denied politics played any role in the damage inspection visits, saying the Republican president's response would be the same if a disaster struck a decidedly Democratic state like Vermont.
On Wednesday, Bush's tour took him to orange groves battered by three of the four hurricanes that hit the state in recent weeks. Most of the fruit still dangled from the trees, but some littered the ground.
Three layers of decaying oranges told the story: The darkest fruit, shriveled and black, had been left by the first storm, Hurricane Charley (search); yellow fruit was left by Frances; and green fruit had been stripped from trees just days ago by Jeanne.
"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 one-fourth of its business blown away by storm damage. "Our nation is praying for the victims of these storms."