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Gov. Bush heads to Asia to check tsunami damage

After guiding Florida through four hurricanes, Gov. Jeb Bush left Sunday to deliver a message of compassion on behalf of his brother, President Bush, in the South Asian coastal region devastated by last week's tsunami.

The governor and Secretary of State Colin Powell will lead a high-profile effort by the White House to counteract criticism of a tepid initial U.S. response to a vast catastrophe spawned by an undersea earthquake. In Bangkok, Thailand, Jakarta, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, they will see relief efforts at work and visit injured victims, and advise the White House on the need for more help.

While Powell defended the American response on the Sunday TV talk shows, Gov. Bush said his involvement was intended as a sign of compassion by his brother.

"I know the president has deep concerns about what has happened and the fact that I am his brother symbolically may underscore his deep concern," Gov. Bush said before boarding a state plane in Miami. "Having gone through last summer's events, where we still have pain from the storms, we got a sense of the importance of early assessment."

The governor's willingness to go to Asia, in response to a phone call from the president Wednesday, marks a significant departure from the governor's avoidance of the national spotlight.

Throughout his six years in office, Gov. Bush has largely kept his distance from Washington other than in his official capacity. He chooses his national TV appearances with care, and he stayed home in August to help with hurricane recovery rather than be with his brother at the Republican National Convention in New York.

One former top adviser to the governor said the catastrophic conditions in Asia required a different response.

"This is something you don't even think about when the president asks you to do something like this. It's a national tragedy," said Cory Tilley, now a media strategist in Tallahassee. "I think he's as qualified as anyone to go over there, and he certainly has the leadership ability. That showed through last fall with the hurricanes."

The second-term governor won praise for displaying strong and sensitive leadership in the weeks following Florida's battering from four storms in six weeks.

"I think Jeb Bush is a good person to be sending over to the region," said Adrienne Smith of Oxfam, the international relief agency. "He will be able to appreciate what the everyday people are experiencing, in part because of what happened in Florida. We hope that he can expedite word back to the White House in order to make sure that the U.S. response is as generous and coordinated as possible."

Before making the trip, Florida's governor said he received vaccinations against typhoid and hepatitis. He was accompanied by two state law enforcement agents and a travel aide.

The governor said he will be back in Washington Thursday to give a report to his brother and attend a 60th wedding anniversary party of their parents, George and Barbara Bush, at the White House.

It is not Jeb Bush's first overseas mission in a time of tragedy. On Christmas Day 1988, before he was governor and when his father was president-elect, Jeb Bush and his son, George P., traveled to Armenia to deliver toys and medical supplies to children who survived a massive earthquake.

Asked how he was preparing for the trip to Asia, Gov. Bush said: "I'm praying. . . . What happened in Florida pales in comparison to what happened in these countries. This is a compassionate place. Our country really cares."

By agreeing to act as a representative of his brother, Gov. Bush has stirred speculation about his own interest in the White House.

He has repeatedly said he will not seek to succeed his brother as president when his term as governor ends in 2006, and has voiced exasperation that his denials aren't taken at face value.

NBC's Tim Russert, speaking on the Today show last week, acknowledged Gov. Bush's past statements, but said: "He has plenty of time to change his mind."

President Bush visited Florida after the hurricanes, flying over Punta Gorda, giving out bags of ice in Fort Pierce and touring a Lake Wales citrus grove decimated by three storms. The White House said Sunday he does not plan to visit Asia.

In three separate requests, President Bush asked Congress for $12.2-billion in relief, most of it for Florida, in response to the four hurricanes.

With the death toll from the tsunami about 150,000, and an estimated 5-million people homeless and with no food or water, the U.S. has pledged $350-million, a tenfold increase over the initial commitment of $35-million.

As he left Florida for Andrews Air Force Base Sunday, Gov. Bush said: "I think the dollar game has been a little overstated. The way we have responded to tragedies in the past like this has been massive and I think this will be massive as well."

He downplayed comparisons between South Asia and Florida after the hurricanes.

"I don't think you can compare Arcadia to northern Sumatra," Bush said.

Information from the Associated Press and Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.