Page 2 of 2   <      

With speech before tea party activists, Palin once again steps on political stage

A look back to February, when 600 delegates from the National Tea Party convened in Nashville.

Aides said Palin was still tinkering with the speech as her audience was being served a dinner of beef filet and jumbo shrimp. "I'm sure even onstage she'll be editing," her spokeswoman, Meghan Stapleton, said in an interview.

In the speech, Palin derisively referred to Obama as a "charismatic guy with a teleprompter," but speaking from her notes, she misspoke when she said U.S. policies might discourage those who see "Alaska as a beacon of hope." She presumably meant to say America.

Introduced by Andrew Breitbart, publisher of prominent conservative news portals, Palin stepped onto a stage where conservative firebrands had for three days been issuing rallying cries to "take back America." Since the convention opened Thursday, Palin has been the star, referred to simply as Sarah. Dozens of delegates wore Palin buttons and the promise of her speech drew more than 240 journalists from around the world and an additional 500 guests who paid $349 to hear her speak.

Persuading Palin -- whose historic vice presidential bid earned nearly 60 million votes -- to headline the event was a coup for Judson Phillips, a founder of Tea Party Nation, the social networking site that co-sponsored the convention. She was reportedly paid a $100,000 speaking fee, and she told attendees Saturday that she will return the money "to the cause."

"We wanted someone who excited them, and we wrote her: 'You'll never find a group of people who you'd find more welcoming,' " said Phillips, a Memphis criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor.

Palin has become an icon to the movement, he said, because "she has something that binds her to people, that touches them. Ask people what their worries are: their jobs, how their kids are going to turn out; she makes it clear she has all those same worries. How long ago was it that her husband quit his oil job on the North Shore of Alaska? He wasn't even a white-collar worker."

Even before they were tea partiers, those assembled here were Palin fans. They friended her on Facebook, read her Tweets and pored over her memoir. The convention's glossy program features a full-page color portrait of Palin in her signature red jacket. If a hero has emerged from this first National Tea Party Convention, Palin is undeniably the one.

Yet the movement shuns any semblance of political elitism. And although many activists here embrace Palin as a spokeswoman, they are deeply divided over whether they want her as their leader -- or whether they want any leader at all.

Palin understands this.

"I caution against allowing this movement to be defined by any one leader or any one politician," she said Saturday night. "The tea party movement is not a top-down operation. It's a ground-up call to action. . . . This is about the people, and it's bigger than any king or queen of the tea party, and it's a lot bigger than any charismatic guy with a teleprompter."

For Palin, the millions of tea party activists represent not only her political base but also her customer base. They helped make her book a bestseller, put her speeches in high demand and tune in to her Fox News appearances. "Obviously, it's good for her to appeal to these people on a pure commercial view and a pure influence-slash-relevance view," said a Palin adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Palin's political action committee, SarahPAC, is a fundraising machine, collecting $1.4 million last year, the vast majority of it raised after she resigned as governor.

Palin, by some accounts the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, in her speech took an unusual step of encouraging competitive party primary campaigns.

"Contested primaries aren't civil war," she said. "They're democracy at work, and that's beautiful."

<       2

© 2010 The Washington Post Company