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Tea & trumpets

"Tea & trumpets" Continued...

Issue: "Ghost streets," Feb. 27, 2010

But an approaching British accent soon diverted my shopping: "What you see here is a rebellion. A rebellion against bigger government and higher taxes," proclaims a man dressed as Yankee Doodle-frock coat and tri-­cornered hat complete with feather. But William Temple, who tells me he's the vice president of the Golden Isle Tea Party in Georgia, also has a copper teapot hanging from his belt. "We will overthrow this government one way or another. Hopefully by the ballot box."

Histrionics is exactly what convention organizers had hoped to avoid. "Some people want to do nothing else but rallies," said Phillips. "But if that's the case, the Tea Party movement will merely be just an interesting footnote in history."

In an effort to turn raw energy into election victories, Mark Skoda, the 55-year-old Memphis TEA Party founder, used the convention to announce the launch of a political action committee to endorse political candidates.

Skoda said the group would first focus on a half dozen races in the Southeast, before expanding to support candidates nationwide.

"I'm not a politician. I'm a guy who works a day job and happens to love his country," explained Skoda.

But Phillips said he opposes the notion that the movement should endorse specific candidates: "I think candidates should endorse the Tea Party movement."

The disagreement between two leaders at the same convention shows the disjointed nature of the group that was prevalent thoughout its proceedings.

"This country is a bottom-up country," proclaimed Terry Plamondon, a 66-year-old retired chef from Ruston, La. Plamondon and others say the movement reflects the spirit of America: independent and sovereign. So they proudly reasoned that any time there is an attempt to top-down the movement, it is going to meet resistance. Competing groups in Florida, for example, have already gone to court over the Tea Party name.

Inside the convention's main ballroom, many Tea Partiers believe that the second American Revolution has already started. The first three battles: last fall's New Jersey and Virginia Republican gubernatorial wins and Scott Brown's election last month to the U.S. Senate seat long held by the late Ted Kennedy. The fourth battle: this November's mid-term elections.

Studious note taking occurred at most of the convention's sessions. At a social networking strategy session where everyone agreed you wouldn't have the Tea Party without the internet, the instructor asked the mostly grey-haired students if they had ever used Twitter. A later seminar about taking back college campuses for conservatives made the largely retired audience seem out of place.

At 38, Jonathan Wilson of Los Angeles would qualify as one of the convention's younger participants. An organizer of Pasadena Patriots, Wilson acknowledged that the movement has work to do to attract more youth to its free local meetings. "The older generation has seen the drift of what's happened to America in the last 20 years, and it's frightening," Wilson explained. "I think with a lot of the younger generation, it's just a matter of really not being in tune with history."

Still, most I spoke to don't feel that protecting freedom means becoming a third party. Delegates here mostly used the word independent, but conservative would be a better description. Only one delegate I spoke to claimed to have Democratic roots. "This is not about Republican or Democrat right now; it is about 'We the People,'" insisted Jack Wilson of Millersville, Md., a retired union member.

Both parties aren't sure exactly what to do with the Tea Party movement. Republicans in Florida and Texas are finding that their endorsed candidates are being snubbed by partiers who prefer other candidates. At the same time, the South Carolina Republican Party this week announced a partnership with its state Tea Party groups.

One thing is clear: The movement will be around for a while. In a recent Rasmussen poll, independent voters said they preferred a hypothetical Tea Party candidate (33 percent) over a Democrat (25 percent) or a Republican (just 12 percent).

But voters will eventually want more Tea Party policy specifics than what was offered in Nashville. Seminars focused on building the movement through creating and uniting groups and registering voters.

Policy offerings were slim: A session on the finances of the federal government mostly diagnosed the problem while a seminar on immigration reform ignored the fact that Congress has tabled that issue. In one session, leaders stressed the importance of focusing on fiscal over social issues because more Americans can agree on the need for spending accountability.

Other groups are planning future gatherings where platforms may be discussed: The newly formed Patriot Caucus has scheduled an April convention in Valley Forge, Pa., while the Tea Party Express is kicking off a national tour next month starting in Searchlight, Nev., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's hometown.

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