Heading for his Texas ranch, President Bush is taking his shortest summer vacation yet with turmoil in the Middle East and an uncertain future for his Republican Party in fall elections.

Bush left Washington Thursday with a wave, but will return nine days later to tend to the problems abroad and at home that are weighing on his presidency. White House spokesman Tony Snow said the president will travel frequently during August — a contrast to previous summers when he has spent more time on his ranch and based all his travels from Texas.

The White House fought the image that the president would be tuned out even temporarily to problems in the Middle East, where there was no end in sight to fighting between Israel and Lebanon-based Hezbollah militants. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was going to the ranch during his first weekend in Texas.

"My guess is he's going to be working pretty hard," Snow said. "So this is not something where he's simply going to be gallivanting and ignoring the realities of the situation."

Bush made it clear during a brief appearance before reporters Wednesday that he's looking forward to being at the ranch. "For those of you going to Crawford, saddle up," he teased. First lady Laura Bush was joining her husband Friday night.

Snow described Bush's trip as his only "extended stay" at his ranch this August. He does plan to return near the end of the month for a few days, but was expected to interrupt that trip with some other travel away from Texas, including a visit to the Gulf Coast to mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

On his way to the ranch Thursday, Bush was stopping in the border town of Mission, Texas, for a tour and a speech on his immigration plan. He planned to remain at the ranch until Aug. 10, when he was to fly to Wisconsin for the day to campaign for Republican congressional candidate John Gard. Much of the president's travel will be focused on helping his party maintain its majority in Congress, with many political observers saying Democrats have their best chance in years to take control.

On Aug. 11, Bush planned to attend a barbecue at a neighboring ranch where donors who have raised at least $15,000 for the Republican National Committee are invited each summer. He planned to spend a second weekend at his home before returning to Washington on Aug. 13.

Bush has faced criticism every year for the time he spends at his ranch, but never as much as last year. Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and a growing crowd of thousands of her sympathizers camped outside and drew extensive media coverage, then Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and prompted Bush to cut his vacation short.

Sheehan intends to return this summer — this time to a five-acre lot that she bought in the nearby town of Crawford, population 700. Although the site is more than 7 miles from Bush's ranch, it will have more space for the group's large activities tent, camping area and parking. And it's just a few yards from a "Welcome to Crawford" billboard that features a picture of Bush, smiling with his hand in a thumbs-up sign, and his wife.

Although Bush was not getting as much time in Crawford, he was not going to spend a lot of August at the White House, either. Bush also planned to spend a weekend in Kennebunkport, Maine — where his parents own a home — later in August for a relative's wedding. And he was to spend some time at Camp David that Snow said will include meetings with his staff.