Feb. 5, 2010— -- Nearly 600 conservative activists, members of the new and growing Tea Party, have come together in Nashville, Tenn., for the first ever National Tea Party Convention.
Many say they are angry at all politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, and are here to network and plan for the future.
They are focused on the nuts and bolts of politics, like voter registration, and there is a tone of anger and confrontation.
"You know what we're here for?" said one woman speaking to the crowd. "A little bit of R and R, for Revival and Revolt!"
These delegates hope that their movement can make a real impact on politics, and they think they've got the momentum they need to pull it off.
"I'm excited," said Tim Peak, a Phoenix, Ariz., charter school director. "It's the first time in a long time that I've had some hope for some kind of reversal in our national policies."
Catherine Tenek of Suffolk County, N.Y., is a self-described "everyday blue-collar worker" who operates heavy machinery and forklifts for a living. She couldn't pay her own way here so fellow members of the Suffolk County 9/12 Project raised money to send her on their behalf. "I'm here to learn how to organize for America," she said, but added, "the conservative way."
The convention's first speaker, former Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado said that people who voted for Barack Obama could not pass a basic civics literacy test. "People who would not even spell the word vote or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House...named Barack Hussein Obama," he said.
Yes, that's right. The president is a socialist, his supporters illiterate.
Today, Tancredo stood by his comments. "These people didn't have the slightest idea about what America is all about, about the Constitution," he said. "And they went and voted!"
The leader of the Tea Party convention, Judson Phillips, had no problem with it, either. "I think what Tom Tancredo was saying, he thinks a lot of people really didn't understand what they were voting for when they voted for Barack Obama," adding, "He did a fantastic job, didn't he?"
Tancredo went even further about voters saying, "I think it should be exactly the same test that we give immigrants coming into the country. And if you can't pass a test about American civics that an immigrant has to pass in order to be here, then I don't think you should be able to vote."
In true Tea Party fashion, Tancredo also had a couple of words to say to Obama's former rival, John McCain. "Thank God John McCain lost the election," he said. He went on to say 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.
But when we asked delegates what they thought, their feelings about the president were almost universal.
"I believe he is a socialist," said one.
"You just read his story, he's a Marxist," said another.
And "I do think he has a socialist agenda."
But as for calling the president's supporters illiterate?
"Well I think that was probably a little harsh," said Dr. Dan Eichenbaum, a delegate and congressional candidate from North Carolina. "I'm sure there are people who voted for Obama who understand what Obama is. But Obama is an ideologue on the left."
This convention schedule shows the range of ideas here...everything from a seminar on technology to a speech on the "correlations between the current administration and Marxist dictators of Latin America," to a speech about "Where the Tea Party Movement Goes From Here."
Many of the people here are not your usual activists. Jim and Julie Dam of Avon, Ind., drove 300 miles just to participate. "We're not really political people," said Jim. "We just vote like everybody else. But now, the way this administration is going, the way this country is going, it's getting a little scary."
"We do not want the government in our health care," added Julie Dam. "We do not want the government taxing us to death."
Tania Ash, a housewife from Florida, brought a big picture of the convention's keynote speaker, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The picture is covered in signatures from fellow activists that Ash has met at the eight Tea Party events she has attended this past year.
Ash's husband lost his job a year ago and as a result, they have no health insurance. "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."
"The Tea Party movement is going through a growing phrase," said Republican strategist Kevin Madden. "It is very early for a political movement. One of the things that they have to do is kind of recorrect the caricature."
One of the goals of the convention is to turn this movement into a political force. The question is, does some of the hard rhetoric keep them on the fringe?