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Tea Party Convention Draws Global Attention

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - There were half a dozen "tea party" rallies in and around Nashville last year and almost all of them drew more people than the 600 who came to Opryland for the National Tea Party Convention this week.

But it's this week's convention that drew the world's attention squarely to Nashville. Hundreds of reporters from every corner of the globe are in town Saturday, trying to figure out whether what's happening here signals some sort of sea change in the electorate - or just another protest in a season of unrest.

"I've gotten orders for these from Switzerland and France," said downsized auto industry executive Jeffrey Allan McQueen, displaying the modified American flag he hopes will become the new symbol for the movement. The familiar 13-star colonial flags have a Roman numeral two in the center of the stars, signaling a second American revolution. "I'm starting to wonder if there might be a Tea Party brewing overseas."

The Tea Party's influence has spread far enough to catch the interest of news outlets from Japan to Brazil to France. Conference spokesman Mark Skoda boasted that the Tea Party model should serve as an example of peaceful political dissent to other nations.

"We're not shooting anybody," Skoda joked. "At least, not yet."

But some of the reports from overseas were less than glowing.

"They will proudly boast of how they have galvanized ordinary Americans against runaway government spending, but a dark underbelly of xenophobia has been exposed at the first national gathering of the Tea Party movement," The Times of London reported Friday. That was in response to former Rep. Tom Tancredo's opening speech to the convention, in which he called President Barack Obama a socialist and declared: "Cultures are not the same. Some are better. Ours is best."

The Arab news service Al-Jazeera blogged: "There's virtually no one under the age of 45 and almost no African-American or minority group represented. This is very much a white, middle-aged gathering. And there's a lot of anger in the room, too."

But Friday, the convention's energies were focused inward, training local activists how to network and spread the Tea Party message. Skoda announced that he would be launching a new political action committee, Ensuring Liberty, which he hopes can raise $10 million to support Tea Party-minded candidates in as many as 20 races in the upcoming election season.

"Let's not be naive here," he said. "Holding up signs does not get people elected."

Some 600 people bought tickets to attend the two-day convention at Opryland and 1,100 tickets have been sold for Saturday night's closing speech by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Local media has been barred from the convention and is not being allowed access to cover Palin's appearance.

Vanderbilt political scientist John Geer said the fact that this relatively small gathering has drawn worldwide scrutiny is due in large part to Palin's presence. She draws attention wherever she goes, Geer noted. But the event itself is also intrinsically interesting, he said.

"Anything grass-roots is going to get people's attention," Geer said. "There's an element of theater, there's Sarah Palin, there's the controversy over the money (when the conference was organized as a for-profit venture), and there's the grass-roots element, all rolled into one."

The United States has always had these "protest moments," he said. "It's a long, venerable tradition."

But for the people caught up in this protest moment, it feels like something meaningful. These people have come to Nashville to change the world.

"I came here to express my views," said Lord Henry, a Vietnam War veteran from Hermitage who came to the convention with his medals proudly pinned to his chest. "We've got to get rid of these Chicago gangsters in the administration. (hellip) I just hope the Tea Party movement isn't going to be another Ross Perot thing that comes and goes."

"The house of liberty needs to be protected from foreclosure," said McQueen, who estimates he's sold thousands of his symbolic Tea Party flags in recent weeks.

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