By Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - From the power centers of Washington to a soybean farm in Iowa and on to sunny Southern California, China's president-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, will sample diverse slices of America during a major visit next week.
But as the man who is set to run China until 2023 takes measure of the United States, he will be sized up not only by Americans but - and perhaps more important for him - by a powerful audience back home in China.
"This is largely a PR visit - something to show the leadership back in Beijing that he's prepared for leadership, that he can handle the United States," said Walter Lohman, director of Asian studies at the Heritage Foundation. The United States and China are the world's two biggest economies.
Xi will remain China's vice president for 13 months, but in autumn will inherit the first top title from President Hu Jintao -- that of head of the Chinese Communist Party -- before being anointed state president in March 2013.
His formal U.S. host during his tour next Monday to Friday is Vice President Joe Biden, who visited China and held nine hours of talks with Xi in August.
But Washington is sparing no protocol detail in hosting Xi, who will meet President Barack Obama at the White House, lunch with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and call on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon.
"In Asia, generally, but in China, certainly, relationships matter and high-level relationships particularly matter," Danny Russel, senior director at the National Security Council for Asia, told reporters.
Before Xi's visit, U.S. officials and analysts talk less in terms of "deliverables," or formal agreements, on vexing trade disputes and diplomatic spats over Iran and Syria. Instead, they talk of "investment" in ties with a man set to be in power long after Obama, whatever the result of the U.S. election in November.
Russel said the White House would be "striking a good balance between the formal and the informal but also a good balance between the protocol and the substance."
"Beyond protocol, we are doing Vice President Xi and China the courtesy of taking them seriously on substance," he said, adding that U.S. officials would not pull punches on human rights or other tough issues for the sake of smooth talks.
While Xi's White House meetings will take place on Valentine's Day on Tuesday, he will not be accompanied on the U.S. trip by his wife, singer Peng Liyuan, U.S. officials said.
Xi will go to Capitol Hill - often a hotbed of criticism of China - on Wednesday to meet senior U.S. senators and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, U.S. officials said.
Hundreds of protesters critical of Chinese policies toward Tibet, Taiwan, the ethnic Uighur minority and the Falun Gong spiritual movement will demonstrate in a park outside the White House on Tuesday, organizers said.
'IOWA NICE' REUNION
After Washington, Xi goes to Iowa, where he will be reunited with a family in Muscatine he stayed with briefly in 1985, when he was an animal-feed official in Hebei, Iowa's sister province.
Terry Branstad, the current governor of Iowa who was also governor during Xi's earlier visit, told Reuters he considered the man who is now China's vice president an "old friend" and said next week's visit was part reunion and part business opportunity for the soybean- and corn-exporting state.
Branstad called on Xi last September in Beijing, where the two reminisced about Xi's fondness for Iowa hospitality.
Although the stopover will be brief, Branstad said "Iowa Nice" would be on full display for the 58-year-old Xi, who is also known to have visited Oregon and New Jersey when he was governor of provinces with sisterly ties to those U.S. states.
The governor's 5-year-old granddaughter, Mackenzie, will present flowers to Xi when he lands in Des Moines, said Branstad. The Marriott Hotel in Des Moines has added two Chinese channels to its TV lineup for the visit, hotel staff said.
The state will fete Xi with an "Iowa meal" featuring pork and beef and a salad including soybeans and corn, said Branstad.
"Iowa Nice does pay off," he said. "We treated him very nice when he came here in 1985. We made a friend."
Iowa, whose exports to China grew 12-fold, to $627 million from 2000 to 2010, is not the primary target audience for Xi's visit. That would be Beijing, said Lohman.
"The visit to Iowa is all about showing how he understands the United States, because he's been there: 'I know these people. I know how it works,'" he said.
PACIFIC PORT OF CALL
In Xi's final stop, Los Angeles, he will visit the Port of Los Angeles, to showcase that huge port's role in facilitating trans-Pacific trade.
Xi, joined by Biden, will be the star of the China/U.S. Economic and Trade Forum attended by hundreds of U.S. business officials and to which Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and California Governor Jerry Brown have invited the governors of all 50 states, said city officials.
Hollywood does not yet appear on the agenda - even though Xi famously told the U.S. ambassador over dinner in Beijing in 2007 that he liked Hollywood films, and found U.S. World War Two movies "grand and truthful."
Even if he skips Tinseltown, which might give him an earful of complaints about rampant Chinese piracy of U.S. films and tight quotas on foreign movies, Xi will be following a tight script throughout his U.S. visit - one set when predecessor Hu made a tour of the United States as vice president in 2002.
"Xi Jinping needs to check all the boxes Hu Jintao did, and that's the measure," said Michael Green, a former top adviser on Asia to President George W. Bush, and now at the Center for Strategic and Internatonal Studies think tank.
"There's a real need to demonstrate that precedent has been met, and maybe a little extra," he said.
(Additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Des Moines; Editing by Peter Cooney)