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More than a storm in a Tea Party cup?

Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin
Most tea partiers say they would like to see Sarah Palin in the White House

By Madeleine Morris
BBC News, Nashville

They came from as far away as Hawaii, Maine, and Texas - an overwhelmingly white, middle-aged army of angry conservatives, furious with government spending and influence, and ready to do whatever they can to stop it.

"We are spending so much money we just don't have. And people are just glossing over that this is the real deal. This could potentially take down our country," says Christine Dwyer, a retired horse trainer from Westchester, Ohio.

Her views are typical of the people who gathered in Nashville.

The first national convention of the Tea Party movement drew around 600 people from all walks of life.

Workshops included "US Govt Bankruptcy - Facts for Citizens Who Don't Have Finance Degrees" and seminars such as "Comparisons between the current administration and the Marxist dictators of Latin America".

Many participants, like Christine and her friend Gail Dorody, a truck driver from Charade, Illinois, have never been involved in politics before.

Lack of respect

Ms Dorody's main concern is that the rest of the world no longer has respect for America.

"We have a president that goes around apologising for us. For what? If it wasn't for us most of the countries out there would be destroyed," she says.

The Tea Party movement describes itself as a grassroots movement of conservatives.

Tea Party movement convention
Some boycotted the conference due to the costs involved

The millions of tea partiers, as they are known, are organised into local groups, or internet communities across the country.

Barely a year old, the movement gained exposure last August when its followers organized mass protests against the Obama administration's health care reforms.

One tea party group, Tea Party Express, campaigned for Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown in January's vote for the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Ted Kennedy.

Mr Brown's win helped put health reform plans on hold - a victory the tea parties are claiming as their own, and one they're hoping to emulate in November's congressional elections.

At the convention it was announced one tea party is forming a political action committee (PAC) - the fundraising groups that raise money for candidates.

Ensuring Freedom, as this Tennessee-based PAC is known, aims to raise $10 million to target up to 20 seats in the elections, supporting candidates who adhere to tea party beliefs.

Dr Dan Eichenbaum, an ophthalmologist form Northern Carolina, is one tea partier who has decided to run for Congress on a Republican ticket.

"What has happened over the last 30 years is power has become concentrated in Washington, because politicians have become career politicians."

Change from within

Most tea partiers say they do not want to form a new political party, but change politics from within the existing structure.

"The goal is to take over the carcass of the Republican party and reform it according to its original principles. They were good principles, ones we all believed in," says Dr Eichenbaum.

"The party left those behind and went off in the wrong direction. We're going to use the Republican party to take back control of Congress and re-establish the constitution as the law of the land."

TEA PARTY
The movement takes its name from the 1773 protest against British taxation, the Boston Tea Party
American colonists rebelled against attempts by Britain to impose parliamentary taxes on them without allowing the colonists representation in the British parliament
The modern-day Tea Party is described as a grassroots movement that supports limited government and opposes high government spending
The informal movement is unified against President Barack Obama's healthcare proposals, his economic stimulus package and other aspects of his agenda

This anti-Washington attitude is one shared by the hero of many tea partiers, and the key-note speaker at their convention, the former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin.

"President Palin 2012" pins and posters adorned the convention centre ahead of her appearance, and her speech, which lambasted the Obama administration, was greeted with several standing ovations.

"She is a wonderful example of why we're all here. We appreciate her involvement. But we don't want her to be our leader," said Julie, a convention participant from Indianapolis.

But Julie's friend from Larry from Michigan said, "I would support Sarah Palin in whatever she decides to do."

Sarah Palin's participation in this convention undoubtedly brought it more media attention than it would have received otherwise.

Media spin?

Her 45-minute speech was carried live by three US television networks, and her reported $100,000 fee was criticised by some tea party groups who boycotted the Nashville meeting.

Whilst she may not be an official leader of the movement, it was clear that many tea partiers would like to see her as a leader of the country, and if the movement grows in power and influence, she is one politician who stands most to benefit.

Whether the tea party can continue to exist in its current leaderless, bottom-up form is a key question which does not yet have an answer.

Already there have been disagreements in the movement over the convention and its $550 participation fee.

Whether it will be taken over by politicians like Sarah Palin, or activists like Judson Phillips whose Tea Party Nation Corp organised the convention as a profit-making venture, is an issue Democrats, Republicans and tea partiers themselves are all waiting to see resolved.

For her part, Christine Dwyer has faith that the movement will stay true to its roots, and that reports of a split are simply media spin.

"In any growing organisation there are always growing pains," she says.

And her friend Debbie Arseneau from Millspring, North Carolina, agrees.

"I think all of this stuff has been generated by the media to try to put a blemish on a movement that has become more powerful than they could have imagined.

"We were dismissed a year ago and now we're not, we're being taken very seriously."



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