Bush showcases progress in New Orleans with swanky dinner and overnight at a luxury hotel

President George W. Bush got a taste of some of New Orleans' finest, dining in the French Quarter and staying at a luxury hotel to showcase progress in the hurricane-battered city even as much of it remains in ruins.

The historic French Quarter was mostly spared by the storm and is showing increasing signs of normalcy with lights back on and establishments re-opened.

Still, many of New Orleans' stores and businesses remain closed, relatively few people are on the streets and many areas remain uninhabitable, even if mostly dry.

The president, accompanied by his wife, Laura, saw little of that on Monday. They chose to emphasize the improvement.

Over dinner of Italian fare at Ralph Brennan's Bacco, Bush discussed the city's rebuilding with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and some of the business owners, church leaders and others that he has appointed to his Commission for the Future of New Orleans.

On his only other overnight in the city, Bush had to bunk on the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, which had been docked near downtown. This time, a month later, he was able to stay in the ultra-opulent Windsor Court Hotel.

Upon arrival, Bush also met with political leaders and law enforcement officials from Plaquemines Parish, a major seafood producer and home for oil refineries southeast of New Orleans that took a double hit from Katrina and then Hurricane Rita a month later. "The American people have their arms out," Bush told the officials, according to his spokesman, Trent Duffy.

The two-day trip, Bush's eighth to the storm zone and fifth to New Orleans since Katrina struck on Aug. 29, marked the president's public return to hurricane matters. It was nearly two weeks ago, during a Sept. 27 visit to towns in Louisiana and Texas slammed by Rita, that he last held an event devoted to the storms.

"The president promised that he would be a partner as the Gulf Coast recovers and rebuilds itself," Duffy said.

The administration's slow and ineffective response to Katrina has cut into the public's image of Bush as strong leader, built after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He initially responded to the criticism of the storm response by making frequent visits to affected areas, committing the government to spending billions of dollars (euros) on the recovery and projecting an air of hands-on management of Rita, in hopes of regaining lost ground.

More recently, though, the president has pivoted his focus to the Supreme Court, Iraq and, particularly, the war on terror, which polls have shown remains his strong point even if his status also has fallen there. He has delivered three speeches in three weeks on the campaign against terror. He has also sought to show command of two new crises: fears that an Asian bird flu will develop into a worldwide pandemic and the deadly earthquake that struck South Asia over the weekend, AP reported.

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