If Democrats had doubts about the voter unrest that threatens to rob them of their majority in Congress, they needed only look from the Capitol this weekend to the opposite end of the National Mall.
It's where Ken Ratliff joined tens of thousands of other anti-government activists at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial for conservative commentator Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally.
"There's gotta' be a change, man," said Ratliff, a 55-year-old Marine veteran from Rochester, N.Y.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans can afford to ignore the antiestablishment fervor displayed Saturday during Beck's rally that took on the tone of an evangelical revival.
Billed as a nonpolitical event, it nevertheless was a clarifying moment for those curious as to what clout an anti-Washington sentiment could have on midterm congressional elections in November. The gathering was advertised as an opportunity to honor American troops. But it also illustrated voters' exasperation — and provided additional evidence that Democrats in power — as well as some incumbent Republicans — may pay the price when voters go to the polls.
The tea party is essentially a loosely organized band of anti-tax, libertarian-leaning political newcomers who are fed up with Washington and take some of their cues from Beck. While the movement drew early skepticism from establishment Republicans, these same GOP powerbrokers now watch it with a wary eye as activists have mounted successful primary campaigns against incumbents.
The Beck rally further demonstrated the tea party activists' growing political clout.
If the GOP is able to contain and cooperate with the tea party, and recharge its evangelical wing with Beck-style talk of faith, it spells the kind of change Ratliff and others like him are searching for.
The promise of change helped President Barack Obama win the White House in 2008, but could turn against his fellow Democrats this year. Americans' dim view of the economy has grown even more pessimistic this summer as the nation's unemployment rate stubbornly hovered near 10 percent and other troubling economic statistics have emerged on everything from housing to the economy's growth.
That's been a drag on both congressional Democrats and the president. While Obama has shelved his soaring campaign rhetoric on change, Beck has adopted it.
At Saturday's rally, the Fox News Channel personality borrowed Obama's rhetoric of individual empowerment from one of the then-candidate's favorite themes on the 2008 campaign trail.
"One man can change the world," Beck told the crowd. "That man or woman is you. You make the difference."
Or change Washington. And while Beck didn't say so, that means change the party in power.
His followers got the message.
"A lot of people want our country back," said Janice Cantor. She was raised a Massachusetts Democrat and is now a North Carolina tea party activist.
Beck's religion-laden message was a departure from most tea party events, which tend to focus on economic issues.
Beck, who speaks openly about his Christian faith on his radio and cable news shows, relied heavily on religion during his speech, perhaps offering up a playbook for tea party activists and Republicans this November.
Earlier, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin urged the gathering to change the course of the nation, although she said "sometimes our challenges seem insurmountable."
"Look around you," she told the crowd. "You're not alone."
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