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Presidential visit brings life to a halt around Sun City Center

It was domestic shock and awe as the Bush entourage put a hold on many normal activities in this communityof retired folks.

Published May 12, 2006

SUN CITY CENTER - For 2½ hours Tuesday, the leader of the free world came to this corner of Hillsborough County. It left a paralyzing effect here, both because people paused in awe when they saw him and because a small army that accompanied President Bush literally stopped everything when he rolled by.

It was a big, scripted show full of surprises.

It began about 11 a.m.

But two hours before, seniors lined up outside the Kings Point Clubhouse just to get in. They dropped their umbrellas in a bucket while white-uniformed, black-gloved Secret Service agents screened them.

Once on stage, in front of a "Medicare Rx" banner and a podium with the presidential seal, President Bush told a crowd of mostly elderly residents who live in the 55-and-older community that he came to personally sell them on a prescription drug plan the government has rolled out.

"Brother Jeb said if you want to come to a really neat place, come here," Bush said.

He spoke until noon. Then he jumped in his motorcade, which flew down Sun City Center Boulevard. He had no traffic to fight.

Hundreds of residents turned out to the roadsides to catch a glimpse of the drive-by spectacle.

They saw black Suburbans whiz past protesters across the street from where Bush spoke, the hoods sporting miniature American and presidential flags. They zoomed so fast, the signs couldn't be read and the people were a blur. They hurried past the Ben Sutton Golf School and past Meadowlark Manor. The Washington, D.C., plates read 800-002.

There were at least 10 cars in the motorcade, including a Suburban full of police who seemed like a SWAT team. One black Suburban appeared to be out of the movie Mad Max, decked out in imposing armor. Plain white and red passenger vans carried the press.

State troopers moved like remoras on motorcycles next to the motorcade. Walk toward the motorcade, and a trooper on a bike cut you off like an offensive lineman.

Up Pebble Beach Boulevard, the motorcade wound until it reached the first undisclosed location: Club Renaissance in Sun City Center.

Already, Secret Service men had swept the golf course clubhouse. With sober faces and sunglasses, they stood guard as the convoy pulled up.

The black-clad SWAT team spilled out and took posts around buildings. Reporters were herded into the Spa Celeste, an adjacent building where spa packages sell for $170.

"Don't ask me questions," a Secret Service agent told a reporter. "I'll brief you inside."

That didn't happen. Instead, the press corps ate pretzels and energy bars while Bush ate lunch. Again, details were scarce.

"Lunch with people," a Secret Service agent said of Bush's guests. A day later, a Club Renaissance official disclosed Bush ate a Venetian salad.

Kim Wilde, 51, a spa worker, entertained reporters with free coffee and soda. She had no idea what Bush was doing.

"It was a well-kept secret," she said of his visit here. "When I asked one of the Secret Service agents walking around this morning, I asked if he was Secret Service. He said: 'I can't tell you.' "

At least co-worker Tessa Anzalone, 20, saw the president.

"He kind of puts on that neighborly attitude," Anzalone said.

She volunteered at Bush's Medicare speech earlier in the day, handing out microphones during the question and answer portion.

Her last brush with greatness was seeing actor Val Kilmer.

When a spa client came in, a reporter attempted to interview her.

"We're not going to do that," a polite Secret Service agent said.

Soon, lunch was over. Like sheep, the press were shepherded out toward the white vans, past outgoing press secretary Scott McClellan, who made small talk with reporters in the parking lot.

The convoy hurtled away like a bullet train. Hundreds of bystanders waved on the roadside.

Golf carts, as common as cars in Sun City Center, stopped in place. Cars parked on the Walgreens lawn to get a glimpse.

"We just came down to see what was happening," Bob Ranta, 74, said afterward. "We didn't see a lot."

Undisclosed location No. 2 approached.

This is what the press had waited for: Bush at Sun City Fire Station No. 28 thanking firefighters for their efforts this busy fire season; warning the public not to throw cigarettes out of cars.

Then it was on to Wimauma, to the "Landing Zone," a Secret Service agent said.

Ortecia Rocha, 40, Cecilia Ruiz, 31, Inez Gomez, 40, and Guadalupe Auilez, 19, closed down the taco stand, Taqueria Guanajuato, when the president came by.

They cried, Ruiz said, happy the president had driven through town, riddled with potholes and poverty. They hoped he would "fix all here," she said.

At Westco gas station, a state trooper ordered clerks to shut down gas pumps.

"At least he should have waved to people," said Maria Sanchez, who worked there. "He passed by making a big commotion in Wimauma. Everybody was stuck in traffic for 30 minutes, and he didn't even wave."

But people waved at Bush. Nurses in scrubs outside Boggs Jewelry. Teens, arms crossed, outside Rudy's Golf Carts. A man and a boy side by side on the tailgate of a pickup truck next to a Confederate flag flying from a fence post.

The "landing zone" was in sight. It was a small airfield that seemed like a cow pasture. A manufactured home that looked like a log cabin sat at the edge.

Single engine planes sat scattered on the runway. Some have smashed front ends.

But there, on the fields sat four of the finest machines ever to touch down here.

Two green helicopters with white tops painted like Marine One awaited in a neat row along with two green helicopters that looked like gunships.

The motorcade bounced into the field like a covered wagon train. The president whipped out, and the press corps followed. The mechanical birds lifted into the air.

For Sun City Center and Wimauma, the show was over. Even state troopers, on the ground, couldn't help but take pictures of the thunderous sight.

[Last modified May 11, 2006, 17:20:28]

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