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Bush stays on the job through his lengthy vacation

President Bush
President Bush strains to hear an audience question at an Albuquerque, New Mexico elementary school on Wednesday  

By Manuel Perez-Rivas, CNN Washington Bureau

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (CNN) -- In recent days, it's been hard to tell that President George W. Bush has been on vacation for this month of August. Yes, he's been spotted on the golf course at times, but other images have prevailed over pictures of the president engaged in summertime leisure activities.

There he was on Wednesday reading a book to second graders in Albuquerque, and delivering a speech about his thoughts on education. He then planned to head to a job training center located in a predominantly Hispanic, working class part of town, before wrapping up a two day trip away from his vacation base -- his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

On Tuesday, he helped out -- saw in hand -- with a fire prevention effort in Rocky Mountain National Park and lunched on barbecue with a group of YMCA day campers and their parents. There, Bush spoke about the importance of values and character.

Message Board: The political spectrum  

The president's work on the park trail symbolized his concern for the environment, and his focus on values and "Communities of Character" evokes the compassionate conservative themes of his campaign, after months of staking out positions that have alienated some moderate voters.

And Bush has kept a full schedule, at a time of year when most Americans are clearing their calendars.

A week ago, the president hammered nails at a Habitat for Humanity project in Waco, Texas, and delivered his first televised address to the nation on stem cell research. He has also applied his signature to an emergency farm funding bill, dressed, appropriately, in shirt sleeves and jeans.

And, of course, there's always work to be done around the 1,600-acre Crawford ranch.

Over the past week, Bush has been hard at work to ensure that America understands this is, indeed, a "working vacation" -- as his aides have described it -- as well as a return "Home to the Heartland" to commune with the nation. Never mind that news reports have noted this is the longest vacation taken by any recent president, or the pesky polls showing that a majority of Americans think it may be too long.

"I like going to the Oval Office every day," he told a gathering of Republicans at a Denver fundraiser Tuesday night. "As you can imagine, walking into this great office is -- it's hard to describe how I feel every morning. But it's also important to get out and see the people, too. It's important to keep balance and perspective. We find that on our ranch in central Texas, and I find it as I travel the heartland."

The fundraiser in Denver raised $1.4 million, and Bush planned to attend another fundraiser for New Mexico GOP Sen. Pete V. Domenici on Wednesday night before heading back to the ranch.

Wednesday's visit to Albuquerque allowed Bush to use his Spanish and reach out to Hispanic voters who make up a key constituency in a state he narrowly lost to Al Gore this past year.

At Griegos Elementary School in Albuquerque, Bush not only read "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" to students, but also spoke to a school assembly about his views on education. While there, the president announced $6 million in new grants over three years for the city's magnet schools, and he also emphasized the need for character education.

"A complete child is one that not only learns how to read and write and add and subtract, but a child also learns the difference between right and wrong," he said, urging parents to become involved in their children's education.

Perhaps the most important effect of Bush's 2-day trip and other recent events, some political analysts say, is simply that Bush is seen at work.

"I think they're trying to stifle the inference that when he's working he doesn't work, so they have him working while he's on vacation," said Lee Miringoff, an independent pollster who heads the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York.

If the buzz is that Bush is taking too much vacation time away from work, Miringoff said, "then that feeds a perception that's not good. They don't want, early on in this administration, to have that become what his political persona is about. So, he's on vacation, but he works."

At the end of his speech before the assembled students, parents, teachers, and officials -- including Sens. Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat -- Bush answered questions.

"What I thought I would do is maybe answer some questions, if you might have any, starting with the students," he said. "And if not the students, maybe the parents. And if not the parents, maybe the senators."

Then Bush paused for a second, and noted he had already been answering questions from the senators. "Nah, forget that," he kidded. "I'm on vacation."

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