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Jacksonville welcomes presidential party

Well, all but a few protesters, that is

JACKSONVILLE ' The town received its presidential visit a few hours earlier than expected Thursday afternoon.

Storekeepers were still placing Welcome President and Mrs. Bush signs in their windows when the motorcade swept up California Street midafternoon. The surprised shoppers and shopkeepers waved at the president and his entourage.

Sen. John McCain, who accompanied the president on his campaign stop, got out of the car and greeted supporters and city staff.

John McCain shook my hand, said Gerrie Leinfelder, an apparel shop owner.

If the timing was a bit earlier than anticipated, the news of the president's visit was not a surprise. The rumor mill had been grinding for weeks.

— Jacksonville Inn owner Linda Evans said she had been working with the Secret Service and the White House staff in preparation for the president's stay for at least two weeks.

It has been absolutely fascinating, Evans said. I haven't met one of these folks who has not been respectful, kind and considerate.

Gordon Johndroe, Laura Bush's spokesman, said he felt the same way about the town.

Johndroe and other members of the White House staff were strolling the streets of Jacksonville eating ice cream as President and Mrs. Bush made final preparations for their rally at the Jackson County Expo.

Everyone is so nice, said Johndroe. (Owner Jeff Levin) opened his store so we could have some ice cream.

Scott Stanzel, spokesman for the Bush/Cheney campaign, said the historic town was chosen because it seemed like the perfect spot.

The president looks for places with character when he has a chance to relax for a couple hours, said Stanzel.

Platon Mantheakis, Jacksonville Inn manager, said serving the presidential entourage and the traveling press corps has kept things busy but interesting. Gift packages and baskets donated by Harry and David have been displayed in every room. And, when it comes to service, no special requests are too much, he said.

We are in the business of giving our customers anything they want, he said.

Mantheakis said Bush's chefs are working with the inn's two executive chefs and four assistant chefs. However, breakfast will not be too much of a challenge.

The president will have a cold breakfast and Laura has a warm breakfast catered to their room, he said.

Serving the Bush family is getting to be old hat for Mantheakis and the Jacksonville Inn. The president's father dined at the inn on an earlier occasion when he was campaigning.

George Sr. had a chicken dish. And he didn't eat his broccoli so the rumors were true, said Mantheakis.

Evans said an agent told her more than 100 members of the Secret Service were working in Jacksonville to ensure the safety of all involved.

She was asked to leave the cottage by 7 p.m. Wednesday so the Secret Service could do a final sweep. But she did her own double-checking when two members of the service asked to re-enter the inn's rooms at around noon today.

I asked them for their I.D., she said, and they complied.

Then they said they wished more people would ask.

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Deborah Slocum and Bandit the llama celebrate President Bush's visit to Jacksonville. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell