KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine - More than a thousand anti-war protesters rallied near President George W. Bush's family compound on Sunday as he prepared to host Russian President Vladimir Putin for a fence-mending summit.
Bush was ready to greet Putin with a traditional lobster dinner at the start of a two-day visit to the rocky Maine coast aimed at restoring their close personal bond amid U.S.-Russia tensions that have evoked comparisons to the Cold War.
Just before Putin's arrival, protesters descending on picturesque Kennebunkport sought to remind Bush of growing U.S. public opposition to the Iraq war, which has damaged his administration's standing at home and abroad.
Taking advantage of blanket media coverage of the summit, some 1,500 demonstrators marched along Ocean Avenue toward the Bush estate, banging drums and carrying peace signs. They chanted "Impeach W, Impeach Cheney too."
A carnival-like atmosphere prevailed. One woman donned a red gown, tiara and pearls to impersonate a "Billionaire for Bush" and some protesters pulled a wooden coffin with a statue of liberty inside it.
"I'm sick of the war," said Mike Miles, 55, dressed in prison stripes to symbolize what he called "criminal behavior" by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. From the side of the road, a few dozen counter-demonstrators waved American flags and chanted "USA, USA, USA."
With his public approval ratings slipping below 30 percent, Bush has pleaded for patience with his Iraq strategy in the countdown to a September progress report on a U.S. troop buildup intended to stabilize the country.
Though Putin has been among the most outspoken international critics of Bush's Iraq policy, the war is not expected to figure prominently in talks during his visit, which will last less than 24 hours.
NO BREAKTHROUGHS LIKELY
U.S. and Russian officials have described the Kennebunkport meeting as informal and emphasized that big announcements are unlikely on some of the difficult issues, such as a proposed U.S. missile shield in Europe and independence for Kosovo.
"One should not expect any breakthroughs to be made or any major decisions to be announced," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. "The point of the meeting is to explain to each other mutual concerns and positions on certain questions."
The two leaders will dine with Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, whose presence lends extra prestige to the visit, before discussing key issues on Monday.
Iran is one topic the White House is eager to raise. Bush plans to try to enlist Putin's support for wider economic sanctions aimed at pressuring Tehran over its nuclear program.
A senior U.S. official said there has been "an increasing convergence in U.S.-Russian views" on Iran's nuclear program. Moscow has often worked to soften U.S. proposals against Iran.
Western powers suspect Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, while Tehran insists its program is for civilian electricity.
Putin's invitation to the century-old estate marks the first time Bush will host a foreign leader there. The stone-and-shingle home holds boyhood memories for him, though in summertime he prefers the dusty canyons of his Texas ranch.
Analysts say the role of Bush's father as host underscores U.S. seriousness about mending ties that have been frayed by the missile plan, what Washington sees as Putin's backtracking on democracy and disagreement on proposed independence for Kosovo.
Bush famously said in 2001 that he trusted Putin because he had gotten "a sense of his soul."
But recent harsh rhetoric from Putin, who has used Russia's energy wealth to reassert its world status, has fueled concerns in Washington, including a comment in which he seemed to compare U.S. foreign policy to that of the Third Reich.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Oleg Shchedrov
© Reuters 2007