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GOP returns, and capital yawns

George W. Bush busily dashed around the capital on the day before he was to be sworn in as the nation's 43rd president, but at times it didn't appear that Washington was taking much notice.

George W. Bush busily dashed around town on the day before he was to be sworn in as the nation's 43rd president, but at times Friday it didn't appear that Washington was taking much notice.

Inaugural festivities for the president-elect proceeded on schedule Friday, with celebrations throughout the town. But Washington, a city used to hosting giant ceremonial events, turned its attention elsewhere: to President Bill Clinton's deal with the independent counsel, to Linda Tripp's sudden unemployment, to gripes about inaugural security and the weather.

Downtown, usually buzzing, was uncharacteristically quiet. Cabs were easy to find, and commuters were pleasantly surprised to find open seats on the region's subway cars. Merchants and residents said it was a sharp contrast from Clinton's second inaugural four years ago, when the city was packed.

To be sure, hotels and conference centers were doing a brisk business as Republicans and journalists gathered for the evening's balls and Saturday's inaugural festivities. But merchants hoping for a boost in slow winter sales were sorely disappointed.

Many who make their livings on the retail level said it seemed the Republicans pinched a few more pennies than they were happy with.

A clerk at a news stand in the J.W. Marriott Hotel, along the route of Saturday's inaugural parade, gestured toward the lobby full of well-dressed men in 10-gallon cowboy hats and women draped in furs and said, "It's busy out there, but no one's coming in here."

Moments after he finished ringing up a small purchase of film for a woman sporting diamond brooch reading "BUSH," David Heckler, manager of a camera shop three blocks from the White House, said business this week had been "slower than Christmas" and well below four years ago.

Heckler blamed tight security imposed by the Secret Service, which he said refused to let the company open for business this weekend at a second store with a "perfect" location along the parade route.

"That's put a damper on it," Heckler said.

Washington's cabdrivers were equally annoyed, complaining that security preparations made it tougher for them to get their passengers anywhere in a hurry. "Look at this! Look at this!" one yelled as he came up short on a police barricade blocking his way.

Plus, "the Republicans don't tip so good," said the driver, who, like many merchants and workers interviewed Friday, asked not to be named because his boss had told employees not to talk to the press.

Even Republican visitors determined to celebrate their party's return to power noticed that things seemed a little bit less than perfect.

"It's been fairly disappointing," Courtenay Eversole, a Bush supporter from San Francisco, said as she posed for a picture with a friend in the historic National Press Club.

"I don't think they had enough time," Eversole said of planners who had barely a month to put together a slate of ceremonies as the nation waited for the courts to sort out the competing claims to the White House. "It's been difficult to get tickets."

It didn't help matters that Friday dawned reluctantly, to chilly temperatures and a never-ending drizzle, and all the red, white and blue bunting, U.S. and Texas flags, and official banners on display could do little to pierce the gray pall that hung over the city.

Rain is always a problem in Washington, where the dominant Federal-style marble buildings, which are limited in height by law, provide pedestrians little shelter from wind and water. So most of them stayed indoors.

Moreover, years of neglect have left roads susceptible to sprouting new potholes in the blink of an eye, and radio traffic reporters warned motorists of a "lake" that had formed in a depression in a street leading into the city.

Forecasters held out little hope for better conditions Saturday. Temperatures are expected to drop from a high at dawn of 38 degrees, and rain and sleet are forecast to change over to snow just about as Bush takes the oath of office at noon ET.

That and the persistent warnings of closed subway stops and gantlets of protesters were the main reasons many Washingtonians questioned government projections that 750,000 people would crowd downtown Saturday.

But there was one other explanation for the apparent lack of enthusiasm with which Washington is greeting the eve of Bush's inauguration, according to Heckler.

"D.C.'s the Democrats," he said. "Let's face it."