Town hall meetings stir more conservatives to action

For Dave Swift, the frustration started with last year's $700 billion bank bailout. For Andrew Molaison, it was the sense his taxes were subsidizing people who bought homes "totally beyond their means."

In northeastern Pennsylvania Swift found like-minded neighbors at a Tea Party Patriots' rally and stayed in touch with the anti-tax group.

Along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, Molaison used the Internet to connect with a local chapter of the 9/12 Project, which is sponsored by conservative talk show host Glenn Beck.

Those first steps led both men, 1,200 miles apart, to congressional town hall meetings on health care this week. The two are part of a phenomenon enabling national conservative groups to galvanize grassroots anger about big government and reshape the debate over President Obama's health care plan.

Suddenly, it's the conservatives' turn to be fired up.

"I'm concerned about the direction of the country," said Swift, 63, who sat in the front row of a county courthouse Monday to hear Rep. Christopher Carney, D-Pa., talk about health care. "I'm tired of the government stealing from me," said Molaison, 42, after standing in a line that snaked out to the highway to listen to Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss.

National groups such as the newly formed Tea Party Patriots and the more established FreedomWorks, led by former House majority leader Dick Armey, say the anger is spontaneous, but acknowledge they're trying to channel it into a nationwide movement. The FreedomWorks website offers an August congressional recess kit complete with talking points, suggested questions for lawmakers and a draft letter to the editor.

Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, says his is one of a number of conservative groups combing through the health care bills for potential problems and then e-mailing out suggested questions for activists to pose at town hall meetings.

The conservative groups have embraced many of the same grassroots, tech-savvy techniques that Democrats used last year to help get Obama elected. The groups are also providing networking opportunities for Republican conservatives who say they didn't have a candidate to excite them in last year's presidential contest.

"The only reason we voted for McCain was Sarah Palin," said Theda Adcock of Pascagoula, Miss., referring to the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain. Palin was his running mate.

So far there's no indication that the town hall meetings have eroded Obama's core support. Dozens of people interviewed by USA TODAY at town hall meetings this month in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Mississippi said they did not vote for the president. Yet a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken earlier this month showed that the protests have grabbed the attention of the independent voters who tend to decide elections. By a margin of 2 to 1, independents said the town hall meetings have made them more sympathetic to Obama's critics.

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The outpouring of people and the impact they've had on the debate has surprised the president's allies.

"I think people did not expect that people were going to act so vocally," said Andrew Stern, head of the 2-million member Service Employees' International Union, a supporter of Obama's health care initiative. "I think we were somewhat taken aback."

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