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Rehearsal to set stage for week of grand events

The first of thousands of visitors began arriving this weekend for the country's 55th inauguration as planners reviewed and rehearsed every last detail of every event from food to floats.
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Fireworks, lavish balls, private presidential meals with deep-pocketed donors, gridlock, protests, the oath of office and a parade down America's Main Street -- all will come later. But inaugural week begins today with a simple, practical event: the opening of the will call office for tickets.

The first of thousands of visitors began arriving this weekend for the country's 55th inauguration as planners reviewed and rehearsed every last detail of every event from food to floats. This morning, before many people have their first cup of coffee, the Joint Task Force-Armed Forces Inaugural Committee plans to conduct a tick-tock dress rehearsal of Thursday's inaugural parade complete with military bands marching down Pennsylvania Avenue and unarmed artillery fire after a mock swearing-in.

Other cities across the country have such once-in-a-generation events as political conventions or the Olympics to show themselves to the world. But Washington is on display at least once every four years and is an accommodating host that allows guests to transform the city. Arkansans brought a folk festival to the Mall, Californians celebrated with a Hollywood flair, and this year, once again, Texans will party wearing black ties and their good boots.

Washington may be one of the country's Democratic strongholds, the bluest of blue metropolitan areas, but this week it is more than receptive to red-state largesse.

"Four years ago, one guy tipped me $100 just for calling him a taxi," said Benedict Akpan, a bellman at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. "A hundred dollars. They were tipping good that day, especially people from Texas."

Setting the tone
Every four years, the political party that wins sets the tone for the celebration. The capital becomes the national soundstage for the better part of the week, dressed up, decorated and designed not only to host a big bash with a big theme but also to beam the winning party's message to television sets around the world.

Even some Washington area residents who didn't vote for the president say hosting the party can be beneficial. Donnella Bryant of the District doesn't much care for President Bush or his administration. Still, she figures his inauguration is good because it motivates the city to spiff up a bit. "It's always better to make the place presentable," she said yesterday. "I've seen some real improvements."

In Wheaton, the heart of heavily Democratic Montgomery County and a dozen miles from the inaugural zone, some suburbanites viewed the approaching week as a hassle, some a historic moment and, to others, a sad reminder that their presidential choice, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), lost.

"I would be more excited if it wasn't Bush," said Torrise Ruffin, 28, of Gaithersburg. "If he was more geared to the average people, I would be a little more understanding."

Judy Legarde, 57, of Rockville doesn't care who is being sworn in. She plans to watch the event on television to celebrate her new life in America. "I am really looking forward to it," said Legarde, who emigrated from the Philippines in 1997.

The will call office opens at 9 a.m. at Loews L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, where people will pick up tickets and information packets ordered from the presidential committee. The big event of the day is the parade rehearsal, which draws its share of spectators and pumps up the hundreds of people who have been working long days and nights planning all the events.

"The final rehearsal at the Capitol is always a real kind of goose-bump moment," said Jeanne Phillips, chairman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, "because it is absolutely beautiful. And, suddenly, for me, the final rehearsal always brings it into focus that this is real, this is happening, and it is showtime."

Especially tight security expected
This will be the first inauguration since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and although Homeland Security officials have said there has been no increase in chatter about possible attacks during the week, security will include the widest planned shutdown of the core business district in memory. More than 100 square blocks of Washington will be closed to vehicles on Inauguration Day. Officials plan to deploy 6,000 law enforcement officers and 7,000 U.S. troops.

District traffic officials expect downtown Washington to be congested from late afternoon Wednesday, when the festivities and street closings begin, until early Friday morning, when they hope to have everything back to normal. Officials said people should stay at home or take Metro, which will be adding cars and security to handle the expected crunch.

Inaugural week also presents opportunities for protesters who are gearing up for nearly a dozen rallies and marches along the parade route and throughout downtown Thursday. The planned actions, from rallies sanctioned by authorities to acts of civil disobedience, are being coordinated separately by local, national and ad-hoc groups, making crowd projections anyone's guess.

Some demonstrators will pedal their bicycles through downtown, some will march from Columbia Heights to protest the war in Iraq, and some will rally on the parade route -- across the street from bleachers filled with Bush supporters -- in antiwar bleachers of their own. Anarchists, Black Panthers, peace activists, women's rights advocates, environmentalists, anti-globalization types -- all will be represented on the street.

D.C. resident Peter Perry, 35, an organizer with the D.C. Anti-War Network (DAWN), which is organizing a rally, a march and civil disobedience, said protesters are trying to draw attention to the "moral implications" of Bush's reelection. "Preemptive war, in DAWN's opinion, is immoral," Perry said. "Simply stripping away civil liberties and placing people under arrest and in prison without any charges, for months on end, is immoral."

Honoring the troops
The dominant theme of the inaugural celebration is honoring the U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first official inaugural event will be "Saluting Those Who Serve" at 2 p.m. Tuesday at MCI Center.

"I think that will be one of the most moving events of the week," Phillips said. "We will have as our guests about 7,000 members of the military. It is really going to be a tribute to the American military and the people who served in the military since George Washington. . . . It is a little bit of a contextual event that says to us, yes, this week is a little bit different because there are special people around the world who are serving our country, and we intend to acknowledge and honor them."

The week has a mixture of public and private events. The Bush administration set a limit of $250,000 for individual and corporate donors. Those donations, Phillips said, enabled the committee to underwrite the MCI event and the Commander-in-Chief Ball, one of nine official balls Thursday night.

Those who donated $100,000 or $250,000 received tickets to most events and are invited to a chairman's reception Tuesday night, a chairman's brunch Wednesday and three candlelight dinners Wednesday night -- at Union Station, the National Building Museum and the Hilton Washington. The president and Laura Bush, as well as Vice President Cheney and his wife, Lynne, will drop by each of the elegant dinners.

"They are beautiful and glittery," Phillips said. "I like to describe them as a sparkling event. It really is mostly candlelight. . . . And all the proceeds go back to the presidential committee, which enables us to have those special events this year for the military."

Phillips said the dinners are intimate -- in inaugural terms -- with about 600 guests at each venue. The menu at each dinner will be the same. It will begin with a salad of lobster medallions with orange and grapefruit and dressed with citrus vinaigrette. Next, filet of beef tenderloin with asparagus, baby carrots and potato au gratin will be served. Dessert will be Georgia peach crumble, served warm, with vanilla ice cream.

While the donors are enjoying their candlelight and lobster, employees at Hargrove Inc. in Lanham will be making a slow and careful journey to Washington, transporting the 14 floats in the inaugural parade.

Marvin Bond, director of marketing for Hargrove, the official general contractor for the inaugural committee, said that in addition to the floats, the company will use 100 tractor-trailers to transport decor to 25 locations across the city that are hosting inaugural-related events, from balls to the fireworks display.

Phillips will attend the candlelight dinners and then try to go to sleep. She said the only thing that may keep her from nodding off is a "weird" weather forecast. The long-range forecast calls for partly to mostly cloudy skies with a high temperature of about 40. There is a chance of snow showers Wednesday night.

"There are a lot of things I can control," Phillips said, "but the weather is not one of them."

Staff writers Tim Craig, Maureen Fan, Steven Ginsberg and Manny Fernandez contributed to this report.