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Bush drives Putin to Texas ranch in pickup truck
By Randall Mikkelsen

CRAWFORD, Texas, Nov 14 (Reuters) - President George W. Bush welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to his Texas ranch on Wednesday, hoping some down-home hospitality would soften Putin's skepticism over U.S. missile defense plans.

With a light rain falling, Bush drove the Russian leader to his ranch house in a white pickup truck as their summit moved to the wide open spaces of Texas.

"The president brought rain for which we are always grateful in the state of Texas," Bush shouted to reporters from behind the wheel of the Ford truck with Putin at his side. In seats behind them were wives, Laura Bush and Lyudmila Putin.

Wearing black slacks and a black shirt, the Russian leader became the first foreign leader to visit Bush's Prairie Chapel ranch.

A Marine One helicopter brought Putin and his wife to a helipad located on the ranch. Stepping off the chopper, Mrs. Putin offered a yellow rose to Mrs. Bush.

Then they all climbed into the truck for the short drive to the main house and nearby guest house where the Putins were staying overnight on the 1,600-acre (647-hectare) ranch.

"I still know how to drive," said Bush, who is more accustomed to being driven around in a limousine.

He said he wanted to show Putin some sights on his ranch.

"We're going to take a tour. I want to show him some of my favorite spots on the ranch," Bush said, who had shed his dark Washington suits for faded blue jeans, cowboy boots and a rugged gray jacket.

A big party for 28 people was in the planning for the evening. The dinner menu included such Texas favorites as esquite-smoked peppered beef tenderloin, southern fried catfish, fire-roasted potatoes with poblano peppers, old-fashioned green beans, and pecan pie.

The guest list included famed pianist Van Cliburn, who once won a piano competition in Moscow and lives in Fort Worth. Golfer Ben Crenshaw was also attending.

The Ranch Hands Band, a Texas swing band, would also provide some of the entertainment.

Crawford, a tiny town outside Waco in central Texas, rolled out a homey welcome for the two leaders on Wednesday, with signs made by local school children decorating fence lines along the road into town.

"Texas says 'howdy' Russian Pres. Putin," said one banner.

Bush hoped the Texas stop would give Putin a glimpse of rural America and solidify their already warm personal relationship.

He also was planning to follow up on their Tuesday talks in Washington on a new strategic relationship.

"The best diplomacy starts with getting to know each other," Bush said on Tuesday.

This week's movable summit is the fourth meeting between Bush and Putin, and their warm personal chemistry showed no signs of cooling when the two met at the White House on Tuesday. "You're the kind of guy I'd like to have in a foxhole with me," Bush told Putin in their Oval Office meeting, according to a senior U.S. official.

Each leader agreed to cut their nuclear weapons stockpiles by two thirds, although they failed to resolve differences over U.S. plans to develop a missile defense system.

In Crawford the two leaders will again try to make progress on missile defense, Bush said. However, he showed no sign of yielding on his aim to abandon the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile treaty in order to develop a missile shield.

Putin views the treaty as an essential cornerstone of the strategic relationship between the two countries.

"He has got some concerns about getting rid of the ABM treaty," Bush said in Waco. "I've listened very carefully to him. But I've made the case to him that we need to move beyond the vestiges of the past," he said.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declined on Wednesday to predict whether Bush would initiate missile defense system tests that were suspended last month to avoid violating the ABM treaty. The tests were suspended to give the two leaders a chance to bridge differences over the pact.


Bush said he did not expect a breakthrough in Crawford, and top aides said specifically they did not expect an agreement on the ABM treaty during Putin's visit.

"I don't think there's a particular moment where a relationship breaks through," Bush said. "Actually, it takes a while. It takes a while to build up the trust necessary for him to know that I intend to keep my word when I say I'm going to do something and vice versa."

Bush said on Tuesday he would cut the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile by two thirds over the next decade, to between 1,700 and 2,200. Putin said Russia would follow suit, but said he wanted a verifiable treaty to cement the reductions, something Bush views as unnecessary.

"Today the world is far from having international relations based solely on trust, unfortunately," Putin said at the Russian Embassy on Tuesday.

Putin, on his way to Crawford, stopped in Houston, and spoke at Rice University.

There, he made a case for Russia to work more closely with NATO to counter the threats of terrorism as well as weapons of mass destruction following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We are ready to cooperate with NATO to the same extent that NATO is ready to cooperate with us," he said. "This is in the interests of Russia and we are examining different options on this."

Also on the agenda in Crawford were talks on containing biological terrorism, combating weapons proliferation, and NATO enlargement. A senior U.S official described Russian arms sales to Iran as one of the most difficult bilateral issues.

The two are also planning to visit the small town of Crawford on Thursday and speak at the local high school.

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