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Canceled Bush massage rubs clinic wrong way

When President Bush wanted a massage therapist on hand for a recent campaign visit to Tampa Bay, his staff called the Stress Relief Clinic in St. Petersburg.

Owner Karen Steinmetz was glad to oblige. She had visions of changing the name of her clinic to the Presidential Massage Center.

The job went to therapist Abbi Bliss.

But as it turned out, Bliss didn't even get to glimpse the president, much less massage his aching back.

And the Bush entourage apparently took off the next day with the clinic's portable massage table, worth about $600.

Now, Steinmetz has visions of the custom-designed table winging its way around the country on Air Force One.

"It was kind of unbelievable, then it was really exciting, then (Bliss) didn't get to do it, and now the table is missing," Steinmetz said Thursday, after four days of trying to determine the table's fate.

Steinmetz said that when she first heard the White House had called, she was convinced it was a joke. But when she called the phone number she was given, someone answered, "White House staff."

It's true, she was told. At the end of a long campaign day, President Bush relaxes by either having a massage or watching a movie.

Later, she found out that her clinic was recommended by Wendy Berlanti, a client. Berlanti is sales manager at the Holiday Inn on Ulmerton Road, where the presidential party stayed last Friday night. "When they asked if I knew a massage therapist, I said, "I sure do,' " Berlanti recalled.

Bliss had to give her Social Security number and birth date to Secret Service agents, who called back the next day to tell her to be at the hotel at 10 p.m. Friday.

She showed up as instructed. Agents took the table to set it up in the president's fifth-floor suite. Meanwhile, two aides briefed Bliss. If the commander-in-chief fell asleep, they said, she would have to leave the table until the next day. They told her the president sometimes likes his legs worked, but most often it's his lower back, neck and shoulders.

Just before the motorcade arrived, Secret Service agents rushed her up to a third-floor office. Later, an aide came down to say the president had chosen the movie that night. Bliss wouldn't be needed.

"I was relieved," said Bliss, who admitted to some nervousness at the idea of massaging the country's leader.

She asked about the table. They said they couldn't disturb the president so they would bring it to the clinic in the morning.

It never showed up.

Bliss called the hotel and talked to some Secret Service agents who were still there. They said the table must have been packed, but that it would be shipped back as soon as possible.

She hasn't heard anything since.

Bliss called the local Republican Party. They referred the problem to Sally Herrell, executive director of the Bush campaign in Florida. She referred it to the White House advance office in Washington.

A spokesman at Bush's campaign office in Washington couldn't find out anything about the missing table on Thursday.

Then there's the little matter of money. Bliss gave the Secret Service agents a bill for $80 for the two hours she spent at the hotel. The payment hasn't come yet.

Bliss didn't even get the autographed picture of Bush the agents promised if she did the massage.

Now, she's hoping for something better. Bliss has asked the White House if the president could autograph the table before it's returned.

"We're going to hang it from the ceiling so everybody can look up at it," Bliss said. "Or maybe we'll let people lie on it but they can't touch his signature."