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Bush's poll numbers up

Hurricane preparations, stabilizing gas prices help

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President Bush's approval rating improved after his highly visible hurricane preparations last week.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush's standing with the public improved over the previous week as he made a highly visible effort to manage the consequences of the second major hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast in a month, a new poll out Thursday found.

Bush's job approval rating in the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll climbed to 45 percent, and 71 percent said they approved of his handling of Hurricane Rita, which struck land Saturday near the Texas-Louisiana border.

By comparison, only 40 percent said they approved of his handling of Hurricane Katrina, which hit near the Louisiana-Mississippi line August 29.

The poll surveyed 1,007 adults between Monday and Wednesday, and had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

Change from last week

A similar poll released last week found only 40 percent approved of Bush's job performance, and 41 percent approved of his handling of Katrina.

An easing of public concern over gasoline prices also appeared to have contributed to the upward bump in Bush's poll numbers.

The most recent poll was conducted before Rep. Tom DeLay, a Republican from Texas, was indicted by a Texas grand jury for conspiracy in connection with alleged violation of state election law.

Public support for the president was sliding even before Katrina struck -- a decline pollsters blamed largely on the two-year-old war in Iraq. But Bush and top officials of his administration were sharply criticized for how they handled the aftermath of the disaster, which is now blamed for more than 1,100 deaths in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane, flattened coastal towns in Mississippi and flooded most of New Orleans, leaving thousands of people who had not evacuated stranded with only limited supplies of food and water. Critics accused the president, who had been on vacation when the storm hit, of being slow to react to the disaster.

The criticism -- some of it aimed at state and local officials, as well -- led to the resignation of Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown and spurred Bush to pledge "whatever it takes" to rebuild the stricken region.

Bush moves ahead of Rita

And when Rita neared shore last week with Category 5 winds, Bush took high-profile steps to address the situation, including monitoring storm preparations and response efforts from U.S. Northern Command headquarters in Colorado and making visits to Texas late Saturday and Monday.

The storm eventually hit as a Category 3 hurricane with top winds of 120 mph. It has so far been blamed for nine deaths.

The hurricanes struck at the heart of the U.S. oil patch, damaging many oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and damaging refineries, tanker ports and terminals in southeastern Louisiana, Mississippi and east Texas. Katrina triggered a sharp increase in fuel prices, but public worries about the price of gas eased in the most recent poll.

Only 61 percent said higher gas prices caused them financial hardship, compared with 72 percent in a poll taken September 12-15. Another 38 percent said the prices had not caused them any hardship.

Sixteen percent said the spike in prices at the pump had caused them severe hardship -- down from 21 percent in the previous survey -- and 45 percent called their suffering moderate.

But many consumers said they expect no relief from higher fuel prices in the next year: 51 percent said they believed gas prices would be either somewhat or much higher by this time in 2006, while just 23 percent expect the price to drop. Another 25 percent said they believe the price will remain about the same.

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