By Philip Rucker and Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 7, 2010; A01
NASHVILLE -- Sarah Palin chose a gathering of tea party activists on Saturday as the backdrop for her first major political speech since accepting the Republican Party's nomination for vice president 18 months ago. With her remarks, greeted with wild enthusiasm here and carried live by all three major cable news networks, Palin moved firmly to reestablish herself as a politician capable of national office.
She bounded onstage to cries of "run, Sarah, run" and then delivered a stinging rebuke of President Obama while striking a populist, even folksy tone. Serving up fiery rhetoric with a broad smile, she attacked the administration's policies on the economy and on national security, assailing in particular the decision to read Miranda rights to the man accused of attempting to bomb a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.
"Treating this like a mere law enforcement matter places our country at great risk because that's not how radical Islamic extremists are looking at this," Palin said to thunderous applause. "They know we're at war, and to win that war we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern."
In a 40-minute speech at the inaugural National Tea Party Convention, she embraced the grass-roots movement of disaffected conservatives, calling it "ours," and said that "America is ready for another revolution." She called the country's national debt a "generational theft," adding that "many of us have had enough."
She pointed to GOP victories in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts as evidence of voter unrest, and she said in response to a question that the Republican Party "would be really smart to try to absorb" as much of the tea party movement as possible.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse said afterward that, as Obama administration officials have noted, the George W. Bush administration also prosecuted terrorism suspects in criminal court. "No one should take national security advice seriously from a person who told the world in 2008 that her qualifications in this area were that she could see Russia from her home state," he said.
During a brief question-and-answer session, when asked about "two words that scare liberals: President Palin," she said nothing, just smiled and looked offstage, where her daughter, Piper, 8, was watching.
Since Palin resigned as governor in July, her public profile has seemed only to grow. She has made news with regular updates to her 1.3 million "fans" on Facebook, toured the country signing her bestselling book, "Going Rogue," and last month signed on as a Fox News commentator; the network is building a fully equipped studio in her Alaska home.
"If Sarah Palin gives a weather report, it's all over the place," said Palin confidant John Coale, a Democrat and a Washington lawyer, who is married to Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren.
For Palin, who has deflected questions about whether she plans to seek the presidency in 2012, the address in Nashville represented a new high-water mark in visibility. She will also headline upcoming tea party rallies in Searchlight, Nev., and Boston.
By delivering a paid keynote address at a convention other politicians had avoided because of allegations of profiteering, Palin displayed one of the traits that has electrified her anti-establishment followers: a talent for persistently and defiantly flouting the conventional rules of politics.
Palin swooped into Opryland to address tea party activists at a coming-of-age moment for their movement. Tea parties began with town hall rage and street protests last year, and now the activists are trying, through their first working convention, to become more "mature" and channel their grass-roots efforts to political gains.
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."