Tea Party Convention Kicks Off In Nashville

What's being billed as the first national Tea Party convention begins Thursday in Nashville. It's an attempt to bring together various groups that have protested the federal stimulus package and the attempt to overhaul health care. The organization hosting the event is "for-profit," and that has turned off some Tea Party supporters.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And today in Nashville, hundreds are gathering for what's being billed as the first convention of the Tea Party. It's a three-day gathering aiming to add some structure to what's been essentially a series of anti-tax and anti-government rallies - up to now - largely driven by outrage over the moves to overhaul health care, and credited with helping Republican Scott Brown win Senator Ted Kennedy's old seat in Massachusetts.

For some analysis on today's Tea Party event, we turn to NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Why don't we start with: who are the organizers and in a way, how organized are they?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think the name that's most connected with organizing this event is a man named Judson Phillips down in Nashville. And his promise is that he is creating something called Tea Party Nation and putting together a convention that is for-profit. And that point - for-profit - has proven to be highly controversial.

Phillips said he was going to use the money from the convention to create a 527 group that could put on ads for conservative candidates and be a counter to the likes of Daily Kos and MoveOn.org.

But what has happened is that some of the main sponsors, people like American Liberty Alliance, American Majority, say they didn't understand that this was a for-profit adventure so they're pulling out. And similarly, Michele Bachmann, the congresswoman from Minnesota, Marsha Blackburn, the Congresswoman from Tennessee, are both pulling out because they say the House Ethics Committee says that if you're going to go and give a speech for a for-profit group, it may violate your House ethics.

So it's become a real detriment to the gathering - first gathering of this Tea Party movement across the country.

MONTAGNE: And there was some controversy as well about the big headliner speaker - Sarah Palin. Huge draw, of course, but a lot of people are questioning her speaker's fee, rumored to be about $100,000. And that's meant that for these people coming to this, the ticket prices are in the hundreds.

WILLIAMS: Right. Well, it was initially a $550 ticket, and now I'm told it's down to 350. But the problem, I think, here is - and when people look at the Tea Party movement - they're thinking this is about passion, it's about the people who went up to the Massachusetts to support Scott Brown, it's about the people who are going down to Florida to support Marco Rubio, because these people see the Republican Party as too moderate.

And now they say, wait a second, so why should the money be under the control of one individual or another but not part of this larger nationwide network?

MONTAGNE: Tell us just briefly about the other speakers. I gather there's the former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.

WILLIAMS: Right. The speakers include people like Roy Moore, the former Alabama chief justice who refused to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from the front of the courthouse. A man named Steve Malloy is also a featured speaker. He is best known for having founded the Web site Junk Science. He's a guy who works against corporate regulations, trying to free the tobacco companies of limitations and laws.

So that's the kind of person then who gets a featured spot so far with people like Michele Bachmann pulling out.

MONTAGNE: So what do you see a movement like the Tea Party, which doesn't have the structure of a political party, what do you see it doing in terms of fundraising and campaigning?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's a tremendous force so far. In fact, it seems to be the defining force, in some ways, of politics 2010. Because what you get is an opportunity for them to create political action committees; an opportunity for them to put candidates in the field. I mean, they have the energy right now. It's the anti-Obama energy that they've captured that has become a driving force in terms of national politics as we head towards those midterms.

MONTAGNE: NPR News analyst Juan Williams, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

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