WOODWARD, Okla. -- When the town of Woodward invited George W. Bush to its Fourth of July celebration, no one really expected the former president to accept. But he did.
Now this community of 12,000 is scurrying to get ready for what some locals are calling the biggest thing ever to happen to Woodward, a place where cattle outnumber people.
"To actually come to a small community like this, that shows his character," said Kelle Robinson, co-owner of the Sweet Surprises store, which has been turning out U.S. flag cookies. "He's not too good for the common people."
Bush's paid speaking engagement at Woodward's Let Freedom Ring 2009 celebration will be his first Fourth of July since he left the Oval Office, and the latest in a series of small, under-the-radar events that he has dropped in on as ex-president.
Most of the rooms at the half-dozen or so hotels around town are booked. Woodward's police force, which numbers around 30 officers, including reserves, canceled vacations and days off, and sheriff's deputies from the surrounding areas are being called in.
The event's promoter, 28-year-old Landon Laubhan, sent the invitation in April. "I was just inviting him as a person deeply in love with America sending an invitation to another person deeply in love with America," he said.
At first, "I thought, 'President Bush, July 4, no way is he even available,"' Laubhan said. "I almost asked for an off day in October or November, because I felt it would even be a stupid question to ask for the Fourth."
The answer came back about two weeks later -- absolutely, Bush would be there.
"You want to talk about a lot of mixed emotions at one time, there was extreme excitement and it was a scared feeling as well," said Laubhan, who has mainly staged bull riding events over the past few years. "You take a step back and say, 'Oh, what did I get myself into?"'
Bush is scheduled to speak Saturday night for about 40 minutes at the two-day event. Laubhan declined to say how much Bush is getting paid.
About 9,200 tickets have been sold, which would be the biggest crowd for Bush since he left office in January.
Over the past five months, Bush has made about a half-dozen public appearances. He paid a visit to a Dallas hardware store in February. Three days later, he dropped in on a political science class at Southern Methodist University.
Asked why Bush accepted Woodward's invitation, his spokesman in Dallas, Rob Saliterman, said only: "President Bush believes there is no place better than Woodward, Oklahoma, to celebrate the Fourth of July and looks forward to being part of this event."
Though Bush left office with a 34 percent approval rating, he remains popular in Oklahoma. The state hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and was the only state in 2008 where every county voted for Republican John McCain. Bush carried 81 percent of the vote in Woodward in the 2004 elections.
"Maybe some young kids and old Democrats didn't vote for him, but I think the rest of us did," said Kris Day, who owns The Cowboy's Tack Shop with her husband.
Bush's stop in Woodward, situated about 150 miles from Oklahoma City, will be the first presidential visit to the town since the late 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower landed at the airport outside town en route to view drought damage in the area, City Manager Alan Riffel said. Bush stopped in Woodward once before, while campaigning for his father's presidential bid two decades ago.
Seats for the speech range from $25 to $500 for the "Oval Office Ticket," situated in the first rows, close to Bush, VIP parking and complimentary beverages. Mayor Bill Fanning said tickets have been sold to people from as far away as Pennsylvania and Nevada.
"It basically has changed the mindset of the community," the city manager said. "Now we can step out on any stage, we can host whatever type of event we can dream of and make it happen here in Woodward. That's a huge step for a small town in northwestern Oklahoma."