Reporting from Washington — As anti-tax and small-government enthusiasts began pouring into Nashville for the National Tea Party Convention, leaders said Thursday that they hoped the event would be an important step toward shedding the movement's chaotic image and establishing it as an electoral force.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to GOP Chairman Michael Steele. It was Republican National Committee spokesman LeRoy Coleman, not Steele, who said, "The Republican Party has always been a grass-roots party, and we respect the healthy debate that is going on in the states. Republican principles of lower taxes, smaller government and less spending match those of tea party supporters and we will continue to work to make sure that tea party supporters recognize our candidates most closely match what they look for in elected officials."
"I know it's very hard to define the tea party with one message," said Rebecca Wales, spokeswoman for Smart Girl Politics, an online network popular with "tea party" activists and a convention sponsor. "But we're unified in the fact that we . . . mobilize quickly, and it's powerful when we do."
Grass-roots activism -- the door-knocking, phone-banking and online networking that was the hallmark of President Obama's campaign -- will be the focus of the three-day convention, which started Thursday. Wales' group, for instance, will teach attendees how to conduct voter registration drives.
Such activities were key in helping elect Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), and tea party leaders increasingly see them as the cornerstones of their power.
Some workshops will be run by the Leadership Institute, a conservative training group recently in the news for funding a magazine founded by James O'Keefe -- the activist accused of entering the office of Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) under false pretenses for felonious purposes.
Born last spring as a response to the Wall Street bailouts, the nation's various tea party groups had until recently been better known for large-scale protests than organization.
And this weekend's meeting, organized by a for-profit social networking site, has been rife with contention.
Some activists criticized the ticket prices of up to $560 as exorbitant and against the spirit of a people-powered revolution the movement espouses. A few sponsors dropped out. The only elected officials signed on to speak -- Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) -- backed out.
But former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who will deliver the convention's keynote address Saturday night, remains committed. She has promised to donate her more than $100,000 speaker's fee to "the cause," though she has not been specific.
"I thought long and hard about my participation in this weekend's event," she wrote in an opinion piece in USA Today. "My decision came down to this: It's important to keep faith with people who put a little bit of their faith in you. Everyone attending this event is a soldier in the cause."
Local tea party leaders and their boosters in Washington increasingly are trying to define that cause.
Many see the movement as a push for limited government and fiscal conservatism. Under that banner, tea party supporters have united against the healthcare overhaul and railed against bailouts for bankers and the auto industry. Criticism of the deficit and debt is a growing rallying cry.
"There's a clear economic message that's evolving out of this movement," Republican strategist David Winston said. "Which direction, in terms of the political activism, does this go? I think we'll get a sense of that from this convention."
GOP officials are watching closely, though not participating publicly.
"The Republican Party has always been a grass-roots party, and we respect the healthy debate that is going on in the states," said Republican National Committee spokesman LeRoy Coleman. "Republican principles of lower taxes, smaller government and less spending match those of tea party supporters and we will continue to work to make sure that tea party supporters recognize our candidates most closely match what they look for in elected officials."