SANTA BARBARA — Hannah Giles was in the middle of her guerrilla warfare lecture this weekend at the young conservatives leadership conference when a man in the audience interrupted her.
"We love you!" he cried out. The crowd erupted in applause and whistles.
"Aw," Giles said into the microphone. "I love you guys too."
At age 20, Giles is a rock star of conservative activism. She shot onto the national scene in September after posing as a prostitute at ACORN offices around the country, where she secretly videotaped employees who appeared to give her advice on tax evasion, human smuggling and child prostitution.
Outrage over the recordings led Congress to cut federal funding for the community organizing group.
Giles credits the Young America's Foundation -- the group that put on the conference -- with inspiring much of her political action.
Two years ago, she said, she was just a laid-back surfer kid from Miami when a friend got her to attend a foundation event in Washington, D.C. That, she said, was where she converted to conservatism.
In her lecture Friday about how to take down liberal organizations and expose what she called media corruption, Giles sought to stir others to action. "Above all, attack, attack, attack," she said, quoting Republican consultant Roger Stone. "Never defend."
For her own efforts, she was given the group's Young Student Activist award.
According to spokesman Jason Mattera, the foundation aims to groom high school and college students to be future leaders by exposing them to the conservative philosophies that he said were missing from many classrooms.
"We're teaching them about limited government, strong national defense, traditional values and free enterprise," he said. "Young people need to awaken."
More than 300 students from around the country attended the conference at the foundation's headquarters, which is located at the Reagan Ranch Center here. The mission-style complex not far from the waterfront is, according to the foundation, "a schoolhouse for Reaganism."
It is also a place to share ideas.
"Normally when I enter political conversations, I have to practically put on body armor just to defend myself," said Frances McCloskey, 18, a senior at Flintridge Preparatory School. "Coming here is so refreshing. At first, I didn't even know how to react when someone agreed with me."
In addition to Giles, the speakers included former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012; and Lynn Vincent, who co-wrote Sarah Palin's new book. Also in attendance was Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), best known as the man who shouted "You lie!" at President Obama during his address to a joint session of Congress in September.
Now may not be the easiest time to be a Republican, but conference attendees said Giles' videos were proof of the potency of the conservative movement.
"There is a new spirit alive," said Andrew Breitbart, whose website first broadcast the ACORN videos. He also helped teach the guerrilla warfare lecture.
When one young man asked: "Who else should we be looking out for now that ACORN has gone down? What organizations would you like us to target?" Breitbart and Giles listed a number of organizations that they said had demonstrated a "dangerous" liberal bias. Among them: the Apollo Alliance, a coalition that aims for energy independence; and the Service Employees International Union.
Breitbart said the ACORN videos, along with the recent tea party protests, represented a shift in right-wing activism. Conservatives, he said, were co-opting the tactics used by civil rights leaders and antiwar activists of the 1960s in order to criticize the left. "We have to employ unorthodox tactics," Breitbart said. "We can beat them using their own tricks."
As if to prove Breitbart's point, Giles asked everyone in the room to copy down the words of Saul Alinsky, who is considered the father of community organizing -- and is a great hero of the left.
"All life is warfare," she quoted him as saying, "and it's the constant fight against the status quo that revitalizes society."