Rice cooks up some southern hospitality for Straw

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"Condi comes home," proclaimed the local radio station as the plane carrying her and the British Foreign Secretary landed yesterday. In a sense, Alabama is Ms Rice's answer to the Texas ranch where George Bush entertains the most privileged presidential visitors. Birmingham, Alabama, is the city where she spent the first 15 years of her life. And like Tony Blair in Crawford, Mr Straw is getting the treatment here.

The visit breaks new ground in the annals of top-level diplomacy. What it is not is a bid by Ms Rice to lay the ground for a possible 2008 White House run. That she most emphatically ruled out last weekend.

Rather, at least officially, it is the first of several such occasions designed to show some of her close foreign colleagues a slice of the real America beyond the impersonal halls of Washington and New York. But it is no accident that Mr Straw is first in line. Not only is Britain the closest ally of the US, especially in Iraq. The trip is also testament to the close relationship between Ms Rice and the British ambassador in Washington, Sir David Manning, forged when they were the respective national security advisers in Washington and London. Iraq, along with Iran, North Korea and other hotspots were top of the formal agenda. But these are three days of immersion in "the real America".

Yesterday saw the speechesin the university town of Tuscaloosa, in which Mr Straw highlighted the historical connection between the cotton-rich region and his own mill town constituency of Blackburn. Then the Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State went to Birmingham, where they toured an elementary school and met Hurricane Katrina relief workers.

This morning, Ms Rice was due to take Mr Straw to civil rights sites, including the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four black Sunday school students, one a friend of Ms Rice, were killed in a bombing in September 1963.

In the afternoon, Mr Straw and Ms Rice are to attend the Alabama-Tennessee American football game. Mr Straw might prefer Blackburn Rovers, but gridiron is a passion of his host. She may not want to be President, but she would adore to be National Football League commissioner.

Tomorrow Mr Straw will visit the Oak Mountain centre for refugees of Hurricane Katrina.

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