When the "tea party" movement kicked off in April to protest record federal spending bills, trillion-dollar deficits and higher tax burdens, its members were fiercely independent and opposed any suggestion that they bond with a larger umbrella group, preferring to work within their local communities.
But that go-it-alone approach is changing as a result of the war over healthcare, and the Tea Party Express tour is leading the way.
The Tea Party Express — a caravan of buses, speakers and entertainers who have been holding protest rallies in cities and towns across the country — is heading to Washington, where on Saturday, up to 50,000 demonstrators are expected to march on the Capitol in a full-scale political offensive to persuade lawmakers to reject the healthcare overhaul bills that are pending in the House and Senate.
"What we are seeing across the country is not only increasingly larger crowds but a greater determination to hold members of Congress to their opposition to the healthcare plan. They are angry and feel they've been ignored, and they don't like what Congress has done," Joe Wierzbicki, national coordinator of the Tea Party Express, said in a telephone interview as his 45-foot bus cruised through Texas last week on a 17-day, 34-rally tour that will end in Washington on Saturday.
A large force of conservative and libertarian organizations is helping sponsor the event, including Tea Party Patriots, ResistNet, the National Taxpayers Union, Young Americans for Liberty, the Ayn Rand Center, Heartland Institute, Free Republic, Institute for Liberty, the Tea Party Express, FreedomWorks officials said. FreedomWorks, headquartered in Washington and chaired by former Rep. Dick Armey mobilizes volunteers for conservative causes.
"The politicians in Washington who think this movement is 'astroturf' had better think again. This is the grass roots coming alive," said Dennis E. Whitfield, executive vice president of the American Conservative Union. "This is beginning to take root across the country. This is for real."
The event, which is being promoted heavily by conservative talk-radio hosts across the country, will bring together hundreds of largely local citizens groups, many of which spawned a seemingly spontaneous wave of April 15 tax-day rallies in hundreds of communities.
Yahoo, the Internet search vehicle, said last week that the Express tour was the fourth most popular topic searched on Yahoo.com. Organizers say the hits on their Web site, where viewers can track the tour and learn of its scheduled rallies in their areas, has helped boost turnout, too.
"These groups didn't know each other, but they are beginning to merge a little and participate in each other's actions. The hope is to unify them as part of a growing, national groundswell movement," said Levi Russell, spokesman for the Tea Party Express.
"The healthcare issue and the town halls have truly galvanized them and brought everybody together. The people coming out to our rallies believe very firmly that [the administration is] trying to shove this down people's throats," Mr. Russell said.
By Tuesday, the Express will be in Michigan. Then it heads into the Northeast and New England before heading South and to Washington on Saturday for the rally at the Capitol, where turnout expectations have grown markedly in the past week, conservative leaders said last week.
"We were expecting 25,000 a few weeks ago, but now we are hoping for over 50,000," Mr. Wierzbicki said.
The ACU, one of the largest conservative grass-roots organizations in the country, has been urging its members to attend. Mr. Whitfield said it's getting "a great response" but adds that "a lot of people are writing back to say 'Is there something we can do here at home?' We are going to see a lot of smaller activities going on around the country."
While the tea-party movement has largely eschewed professional politicians at its local events, several conservative Republicans will be featured at Saturday's Capitol rally, including Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Reps. Mike Pence of Indiana, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Tom Price of Georgia.
The role of some of the Republican Party's most conservative leaders in Saturday's event to some extent signals the beginning of a political comeback for the party, which lost the support of much of its conservative base in the past two elections.
With the Democratic majority in Congress forecasting several years of trillion-dollar budget deficits, the previous Bush administration and the days when Republicans ruled Capitol Hill are beginning to look a bit better in contrast to the present administration's deficit spending record, tea party leaders say.
"President Obama makes even George W. Bush look like a fiscal conservative, and I didn't think that was possible," Mr. Kibbe said.
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