Tea party rally to draw angry crowds, scrutiny

“Tea party” activists want to turn conservative anger over the health care overhaul into political muscle in November elections as they call thousands to the hardscrabble desert town that is home to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Sarah Palin is headlining the event Saturday in Searchlight, about 60 miles from Las Vegas, and a strong turnout could help affirm the popularity of the loosely organized tea party movement and build momentum against Reid and other Democratic candidates who backed health care reform.

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America’s media will be focused on the former mining town, sending images across the country. Some worry it has the potential for violence: Bricks have been hurled through Democrats‘ windows and at least 10 members of Congress who voted for the bill have received threats. In the run-up to the health care vote, racial epithets aimed at black members of Congress were heard at protests attended by at least some tea party members.


Some have even accused Palin of inciting violence after she urged supporters on the social networking site Twitter to: “Don’t Retreat, Instead — RELOAD!”

“The tea party has one big challenge between now and November and that is policing itself,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution and a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush‘s 1992 campaign. “There is a lot of bitterness in politics today, and unfortunately it’s much too close to the surface. You can plan a rally for 5,000 people, and if one person does something horrible, the rally was not successful.”

Some rallies have featured protesters carrying holstered handguns, legal in some states. No violence has been reported.

“I’m confident we are going to have an orderly group,” said Debbie Landis, whose tea party group is holding a candidate forum before the rally. “This is going to be attended by people interested in the future of their state and country, not rabble-rousers.”

No one is certain how many people will show up or what grievances they might bring. The crowd at the so-called conservative Woodstock could exceed Searchlight’s under-1,000 population by tenfold.

Police don’t expect problems, but the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is sending dozens of uniformed and plainclothes officers to patrol the crowd.

The event, sponsored by the Tea Party Express, kicks off a 42-city bus tour that ends in Washington on April 15. One of the leaders of the group is Sal Russo, a veteran Republican operative from California.


Organizers are aware of the visibility of the so-called “Showdown in Searchlight.”

“The whole world is watching,” Tea Party Express spokesman Joe Wierzbicki said in an e-mail. “If you can get in your car and drive up, or hop on a plane, or take your motorhome or motorcycle, please, please, please join this historic effort.”

Eric Odom, an organizer for the Patriot Caucus and other tea party groups, said in an e-mail Thursday that he had received “hundreds of hateful messages and phone calls” he attributed to “leftists” and supporters of the health care overhaul.

Democrats and Reid’s campaign plan to set up a hospitality tent in the parking lot of a Searchlight casino that will serve tea and doughnut holes. In a counterpoint to the conservative protest, the Senate leader will spend part of the day at a new shooting range in Las Vegas with National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.

“Searchlight doesn’t get many tourists, so I’m glad they are choosing to bring all their out-of-state money to my hometown,” Reid said in a statement.

Republicans have made Reid a top target, and a string of polls suggest he is vulnerable in his bid for a fifth term. A field of 12 Republicans is seeking the party’s nomination in the June primary. Voter are anxious — once-booming Nevada has been hurt by double-digit unemployment and record foreclosure and bankruptcy rates.

The tea party movement is a disparate coalition of conservative groups angered by federal spending, rising taxes and the growth and reach of government. It takes its name from the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when colonists dumped tea off English ships to protest what they considered unfair taxation by the British crown.

The health care vote has energized activists and Republican allies seeking to oust Democrats who supported the law and repeal the measure in the courts.

“Don’t get demoralized. Get organized,” Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, wrote on her Facebook page.

The influence of the movement on Reid’s race is far from clear.

Reid and other Democrats are betting the health care law will be a winner with voters, and President Obama on Thursday dared Republicans to try to repeal it and see how they fare in November.

Reid’s potential Republican rivals have sought to win favor with tea party activists, but no one knows the size of the movement, how cohesive it is or in what numbers its supporters will turn out in November.

Another unknown: a group calling itself the Tea Party of Nevada is behind candidate Scott Ashjian, but other activists have distanced themselves from him and the party. Ashjian’s name on the ballot could split the Republican vote, benefiting Reid. A lawsuit is challenging his candidacy, and the Tea Party Express is running an ad against him.

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