Tea Party movement reaches boiling point at first convention hits trouble

Sarah Palin's $100,000 speaking fee angers right-wing rank and file

They came by bus, train, plane and car from places as far apart as Las Vegas, Memphis, Fresno and Boston. And they were variously livid, mad-as-hell, furious and, in a few cases, a wee bit bonkers. Welcome to the Tea Party Convention at the Grand Ole Opry Hotel just outside Nashville, Tennessee.

They come in celebration and anticipation, but quite what will transpire as the first national gathering of self-described "tea-partiers" starts this morning is anyone's guess.

The melodious country tunes you might expect in Music City will likely be absent. Rather, expect a cacophony of competing arguments, banners and megaphones, as they dig in to consider where the movement should head next and what its aims are. Another certainty: the highlight will surely be the Saturday night lobster and steak dinner featuring the event's keynote speaker, the former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

Dissent arrived early, in fact, after two main speakers and three sponsors pulled out at the last minute, alleging that the convention had become a commercial enterprise for its organisers – a group called Tea Party Nation – and that the grassroots nature of the movement was being compromised. The $549 (£348) price of admission angered many, as did the $100,000 speaking fee for Ms Palin.

The movement was born last February when a television reporter commented on air about Barack Obama's bailout plan for the banks. He called for a Windy City "tea party" to protest against the policies, making reference to the Boston Tea Party when colonists rebelled against taxes on tea imposed by Britain in 1773.

The idea caught on and since then tea party activists have sent tremors through the political landscape, first by organising rowdy town hall events over the summer to oppose healthcare reform, then convening a huge rally on the Washington Mall in the autumn, and finally sending volunteers to New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts for elections, helping to tip the results against the Democrats.

While Democrats are rattled by the brush fire that is the Tea Party, so are many in the Republican leadership. The movement is backing hard conservatives to compete in mid-term elections in November. That could hurt the Republicans nationally.

And their views represent a slice of the "Grand Old Party" that the party would rather keep quiet about in national elections. Clamouring for bellhops and registration assistants last night were libertarians, conservatives, anarchists, born-agains and, of course, a ship load of "birthers", the folk who insist that President Obama is not an American and represent more than one third of the party, according to a recent poll.

Nor is there just one Tea Party organisation. Competing for attention this week are Tea Party Nation, Tea Party Express, SurgeUSA, SmartGirl Politics and a string of other conservative groups. Among those boycotting the Nashville bash is Keli Carendar, the "Liberty Belle", a popular figure who was one of the first to stir up the movement. She and other purists worry that a ticketed convention in a fancy resort smacks of the traditional political parties.

"It wasn't the kind of grass-roots organisation that we are, so we declined to participate," said Marty Meckler, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.

High-profile last-minute drop-outs included two members of Congress, Marsha Blackburn and Michele Bachmann.

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