NASHVILLE, Tenn., Feb. 5, 2010 -- Nearly 600 conservative activists, ranging from the energized to the eclectic, have convened in Nashville, Tenn., for the first-ever National Tea Party Convention, angry at Democrats and Republicans alike.
The first night's speaker said the country "put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House," referring to the president by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, and launching a tirade against the "cult of multiculturalism" that led to his election.
"Thank God John McCain lost the election," Tancredo said, adding that a McCain presidency would have been a repeat of what he called "Bush 1 and Bush 2," with big budgets and a lackluster stand against illegal immigration.
The 2008 election served to galvanize the right and the people in the crowd at this convention, he said.
The "delegates" here are overwhelmingly white, generally on the high side of middle-age and universally, and very deeply, fearful that their freedoms are threatened, that their grandchildren will be saddled with an incalculable debt and that their nation's best days are behind it.
But the aggrieved attendees hope that their movement can reverse the trend and save America's heritage, and that they've now got the momentum they need to pull it off.
"They want to be able to pass the blessings of freedom along to their children and grandchildren," said Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, the sponsor of the three-day conference at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center. "That's why I'm here."
Tim Peak, a Phoenix charter school director, said, "I'm excited. It's the first time in a long time that I've had some hope for some kind of reversal in our national policies."
Tea Party Convention: 'Paradigm Has Changed'
"Things are changing," said Catherine Tenek of Suffolk County, N.Y. "The paradigm has changed."
Tenek, a self-described "everyday blue-collar worker" who operates heavy machinery such as forklifts and payloaders, couldn't pay her own way to Nashville from Long Island. So fellow members of the Suffolk County 9/12 Project raised money to send her on their behalf. She wore the group's yellow sweatshirt, featuring the coiled snake of the colonial Gadsden Flag, along with its "Don't Tread on Me" tagline.
"I'm here to learn how to organize for America," Tenek said, nearly invoking the name of the Obama grass-roots effort, Organizing for America, but adding after a beat pause, "The conservative way."
Tenek hopes to learn enough here to help fellow activists take on their congressman, Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., whom Tenek described as "a Pelosi, Harry Reid, Barney Frank rubber stamp."
Yes, Tenek acknowledged, Long Island is largely Democratic.
"But we can see what happens to Blue territory when you look at Massachusetts," she said.
Last month's victory by Republican Sen. Scott Brown for a seat that Democrats had held since 1953 has invigorated the Tea Party movement and infused this conference with an energy even organizers hadn't expected when they planned the event months ago.
Among the weekend sessions for attendees, along with talks titled "Correlations Between the Current Administration and Marxist Dictators of Latin America," is a panel that will discuss "Where the Tea Party Movement Goes From Here."
Phillips, the conference organizer, said Thursday that he wants the Tea Party movement to win Congress for conservatives in 2010.
Such an undefined goal may portray the trouble the Tea Party movement could face in accomplishing its goals electorally.
Tim Peak, the charter school director, lives in a state that will play host to one of 2010's most closely watched Republican Senate primaries. Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth hopes Tea Party populism will propel him to the Republican nomination for a seat held since 1987 by McCain, a man long reviled by the most conservative members of his party.
But Peak, who came to the registration desk at this convention wearing a collared shirt that included a print of the Declaration of Independence matted over a U.S. flag, said he's no fan of McCain, but he won't be supporting his challenger, either.
"He's a politician," Peak said of Hayworth.
Tea Party Convention: Delegates Assail the Media
Disdain for the political establishment is matched at this convention only by antipathy toward the media. Several people refused to give their full names for this article, while others declined to speak on the record altogether.
A woman from the Chicago area who would only allow herself to be quoted as "Amy" said it's important that Tea Party activists make their voices heard.
"We elect [politicians] to represent us, not to rule us," she said. "And if they're passing things that we are not happy with or we don't think are good for the country, we need to step up and say, 'Wait a minute.'"
Many, such as Jim and Julie Dam of Avon, Indiana, had never been motivated to speak their minds before.
"We're not really political people," Jim Dam said. "We just vote like everybody else. But now, the way this administration is going, the way this country is going, it's getting scary.
His wife said, "We do not want the government in our health care. We do not want the government taxing us to death."
The couple drove 300 miles from their home outside Indianapolis to be here.
Tania Ash, a housewife from outside Orlando, said, "There's never been an urgency to make sure that our government was doing the right thing as there is now.
"You just don't shove things down people's throats," said Ash, who decried the closed-door deals and rushed votes that have marked the first year of Barack Obama's presidency. "You just don't do that. That's not what our constitution's all about."
Ash brought a poster-size picture of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who will deliver the keynote speech at a banquet here Saturday night. The back of the poster was covered in signatures by fellow activists that Ash has met at the eight Tea Party events she has attended in the past year, including one in Washington, D.C., in September.
Ash's husband lost his job a year ago. She said the couple has no health insurance as a result.
"I would love to have free health care coverage," she said. "I don't have any right now. But nothing is free. We [as a country] can't afford it."
Ash said she hopes to learn this weekend how to better network with fellow activists, as she considers a run for the Florida Statehouse.
Tea Party activists unite around what they're against. The movement has no clear platform, other than a list of grievances -- big Government, out of control spending, erosion of freedoms -- and an often-expressed desire to "take our country back."
"We're here doing everything that we can, and know how, to get it turned back around again," said Tom Rupp, a retired commercial pilot who served in Vietnam and now lives with his wife on Maui. The couple recently opened the Web site www.minutepatriots.com, which celebrates "faith, family and freedom."
"We have to return back to our Christian principles," Rupp said, "to our founding fathers' constitution."