WOODWARD, Oklahoma -- Former President George W. Bush was greeted by thunderous applause on Independence Day as he told thousands of spectators in a rural Oklahoma rodeo arena that the U.S. was "the greatest nation on the face of the Earth."
Bush was given six standing ovations as he spoke in Woodward, a town of about 12,000 residents in northwest Oklahoma. About 9,200 tickets were sold for the event, which would mark the biggest crowd for Bush since he left office in January.
Bush spoke of the bravery of injured soldiers he'd met throughout his presidency, and thanked members of the military for their service. He joked with the crowd, telling them it was "nice of you to give a retired guy something to do."
The former president has turned up in a handful of out-of-the-way places since leaving office, and he surprised city leaders in Woodward by accepting their invitation to speak at festivities celebrating the $25 million renovation of a local park.
Woodward is friendly territory for Bush, who visited the town two decades ago while campaigning for his father's presidential bid. Oklahoma hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, and was the only state in the 2008 election to have every county vote for Republican candidate John McCain.
In 2004, Bush won 80.9 percent of the vote in Woodward County as he defeated Democratic challenger John Kerry.
A banner welcoming Bush hangs from a restaurant on a highway entering Woodward. Not far down the road, marquees for a local Atwoods store and a steak restaurant also bear welcoming messages.
Bush's principles ring true in Oklahoma, said Kris Day, who owns The Cowboy's Tack Shop with her husband, Neal.
"We're conservative," she said. "We don't spend money we don't have."
Riffel said it will be the first presidential visit to Woodward since the late 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower landed at the airport outside town en route to view drought damage in the area.
Red, white and blue bunting hangs outside the arena at Crystal Beach Park where Bush is to speak. The two-day "Let Freedom Ring 2009" event also featured performances by country artists including Tanya Tucker, Marty Stuart, Asleep at the Wheel and Sawyer Brown.
Seats for the speech -- held at a rodeo arena built in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration -- ranged from $25 up to $500 for the "Oval Office Ticket" in the first rows, close to Bush, with VIP parking and complimentary beverages.
Event promoter Landon Laubhan declined to say how much Bush was getting paid to speak.