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Politics, pomp and parties to take center stage at inauguration

WASHINGTON—George W. Bush will swear Thursday to uphold the duties of the presidency for a second four-year term amid a festival of politics, partying and the possibility of snow.

After placing his hand on a family Bible at noon and repeating the 35-word oath of office, Bush will deliver an address that will outline an ambitious second-term agenda and paint the next four years as a period of hope and opportunity.

"It's a liberty speech," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Wednesday. "The president will talk about the power of freedom. Peace is secured by advancing freedom. And the president will also talk about extending freedom at home by reforming our institutions and building an ownership society."

Despite up to two inches of snow on the ground from Wednesday and the prospect of more flurries Thursday, inauguration organizers said they intend to hew to tradition and keep the swearing-in outdoors at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist is expected to administer the oath, despite having thyroid cancer, which has prevented him from presiding over Supreme Court sessions.

"All systems are go," said Ben Porritt, a spokesman for the inaugural committee.

In preparation for Thursday's events, the president and first lady Laura Bush spent part of Wednesday reflecting on America's past. They visited the National Archives, where they viewed original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and some of George Washington's personal effects—including his handwritten first inaugural address.

Asked whether he was feeling the history of the moment, Bush said, "Absolutely."

The rest of the president's day was packed with pre-inaugural festivities that included a luncheon by the private committee hosting the inaugural events. The events, which cost more than $40 million, also included a concert on the Ellipse behind the White House and a series of candlelight dinners on Wednesday, and nine inaugural balls on Thursday.

Bush was planning to start his day Thursday with a worship service at St. John's Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Square from the White House. After he takes the oath, Bush will speak in broad terms about an agenda that includes stabilizing Iraq, continuing the war against terrorism, attempting to spread peace and democracy through the Middle East, limiting medical-malpractice lawsuits, overhauling Social Security, revamping the federal tax code and extending No Child Left Behind education programs to the nation's high schools.

Ken Mehlman, the newly elected Republican National Committee chairman and Bush's campaign manager, said Wednesday that the president enters his second term with a clear mandate because of his victory over Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

"Our victory was historic and it was a mandate because the president and Republicans up and down the ballot offered a clear agenda of reform," he said.

But recent polls indicate that America, just like after the 2001 inaugural, remains deeply divided. A National Annenberg Election Survey released Monday showed Bush with only a 53 percent approval rating, significantly lower than the 60 percent range granted most modern presidents at the start of their second terms. And 65 percent of those polled said his November victory doesn't translate to public support for his ideas about Social Security. Only 23 percent said Bush's victory was a sign of public approval for his Social Security ideas.

The poll found Americans split on Bush's stewardship in the war on terrorism, with 48 percent approving of his handling of it, and 48 percent disapproving.

Following his inaugural address, Bush will take part in the parade, a procession along a 1.7-mile stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the front of the White House that will feature the presidential motorcade and more than 11,000 people, horses, floats and other vehicles.

Some 500,000 spectators are expected to line the route, and they will do so under unprecedented security. More than 6,000 police officers, 2,500 military personnel and thousands of Secret Service and law enforcement officers from 60 agencies will be protecting the inaugural ceremonies from terrorists and protesters.

After the parade will come the official parties that'll usher in the second term with the usual revelry, but also serve as reminders of America's military actions overseas. The Commander-in-Chief Ball, for example, is for 2,000 uniformed guests who've served in Iraq. The hottest ticket in town, though, was for Wednesday's distinctly Texas Black Tie & Boots party, which featured a fountain spewing barbecue sauce for dipping and steers and saddles for posing.

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TELEVISION COVERAGE:

The four major television networks, ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS, will have extensive coverage of Thursday's inaugural events beginning with their morning news shows and stay live through the inaugural ceremonies, which start at 11:30 a.m. EST. Fox will have additional coverage on its cable outlet, as will NBC through MSNBC and Spanish-language Telemundo. ABC announced that it will broadcast the inauguration for the first time in high definition.

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(Knight Ridder correspondents Steven Thomma contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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