CRAWFORD, Texas For just the second time since the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush savored the wide open spaces of his beloved Texas ranch on Wednesday, recharging his batteries for "a war year" in 2002.
After a bucolic Christmas at Camp David with extended family, Bush and his wife, Laura, will see in the new year with friends at the secluded 1,600-acre spread they have named "Prairie Chapel."
With Scottish terrier Barney tucked under one arm and springer spaniel Spot straining at her leash, the Bushes made their way gingerly down the steep stairs from Air Force One to the tarmac in Waco and immediately boarded a helicopter for the short ride to the ranch.
The first lady was accompanied by her mother Jenna Welch, but the president's usual gaggle of senior aides was missing. Bush has tried to give most of them a holiday break.
Laura Bush said last week she and her husband also were looking forward to vacation. "That'll be a great rest for us. A lot of friends will come from the Austin and the Dallas area. A lot of our friends will come spend New Year's with us."
Before the hijacked plane attacks that left almost 3,000 dead in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, Bush had spent about two months of his presidency at the ranch, leaving the White House at every opportunity.
A monthlong "working vacation" in the summer roused suspicions that he might be loafing. Although Bush is staying through the end of next week, this vacation has drawn little criticism, likely in part because his poll numbers are sky high.
Bush dominated a most-admired poll released on Wednesday, garnering the adulation of more Americans than any man since the Gallup organization began asking the question in 1948, eclipsing even President John Kennedy.
In the CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, 39 percent of those surveyed chose Bush as the living man they admired most. The previous record for men was set by Kennedy, who received 32 percent in 1961, the end of his first year as president.
Since Sept. 11, Bush has spent almost every weekend at Camp David, a short helicopter ride from Washington but has visited "Prairie Chapel" just once, and even that was a working trip last month with Russian President Vladimir Putin along.
Clearing brush, fishing for bass or simply sitting on the patio "shooting the breeze" with friends, Bush has said he finds the ranch therapeutic, a place where he is in his element and where "I recharge my batteries."
Getting away doesn't mean the president is out of touch or that he leaves the job behind, especially with the United States leading an international war against terrorism that Bush says will be protracted and extend well beyond Afghanistan.
While he is at the ranch, Bush will have daily intelligence, military and FBI briefings, reviewing progress at home and abroad, keeping up to date with the latest developments and planning the next steps.
He can pick up the telephone and be connected to any world leader. He has a fleet of helicopters and a jumbo jet at his disposal. His aides are just a videoconference away.