Gathered amid the dust and sagebrush of the Nevada desert, thousands of conservative “tea party” protesters responded Saturday to their critics with what might be called the young protest movement’s unofficial motto.
Don’t tread on me.
Dozens of yellow flags bearing that defiant message, along with the image of a coiled snake poised to strike, whipped in the wind above the crowds rallying in the tiny highway hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Along with repeating familiar tea party themes -- government is too big, the healthcare overhaul is socialist -- the protesters pointedly answered critics who say the group’s rhetoric has fueled violence and threats against Democratic lawmakers in an increasingly poisonous political climate after the passage of healthcare legislation.
“Don’t ever let anybody tell you to sit down and shut up, Americans!” said former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. A hearty crowd huddled in a dirt lot for the “Showdown in Searchlight” cheered.
The rally was originally intended to stir up opposition to Reid’s bid for reelection this fall.
But the parade of speakers seemed equally focused on defending the young protest movement from its detractors, an acknowledgment that any association with the vandalism, threats and slurs reported by Democrats could harm tea party aims and drive away allies.
No tea party group has been found to be involved in any of the incidents.
Several websites, including Palin’s, have been cited as examples of the incendiary tone. In announcing her efforts to try to unseat key Democratic members of the House, Palin’s site used the image of a rifle scope. She told her supporters via Twitter, “Don’t retreat, instead - RELOAD.”
On Saturday, Palin dismissed as a “bunch of bunk” suggestions that she was promoting violence.
“Our vote is our arms,” she said to cheers. “We’re not inciting violence. Don’t get sucked into the lame-stream media lies.”
Palin’s outlook matched that of many who inflated the population of Searchlight, home to fewer than 1,000 people.
The pit-stop town was overrun by visitors in RVs, motorcycles and, in the case of Nevada political candidates, buses wrapped in campaign slogans. A few vendors hawked T-shirts, flags and a book-and-DVD series called “The Constitution Made Easy.”
Adherence to what supporters deem to be a strict interpretation of constitutional principles is a key tenet of the tea party movement, a loose confederation of local groups that arose in opposition to bank bailouts. It found its momentum as the loudest voice against President Obama’s healthcare overhaul, which Reid championed.
Saturday’s group, largely older and predominantly white, quickly packed a dirt lot the size of a football field and spilled onto a nearby hill topped with an abandoned mine shaft.
Interspersed were Revolutionary War re-enactors, plastic pitchforks, cut-out torches and skull-and-cross-bones flags with Obama’s face superimposed over the skull.
“The real pirates are in Washington,” said Judy Hoelscher, who sold the flags for $10 each.
Fred Kubitz of San Diego carried a sign branding Obama, Stalin and Hitler “three socialists.”
“I believe that we’re heading down the same road” as Stalin and Hitler, he said, adding that he did not see his sign as exaggerated and that, although a small number of people may resort to violence, “this is a movement of beautiful people, of laid-back and easygoing people.”
No problems were reported to police, despite the logistical challenge of accommodating the crowds on a plot just off the highway 60 miles south of Las Vegas.
Many people arrived about dawn, staking out seats in collapsible chairs. A traffic jam clogged five miles of the highway much of the morning. Las Vegas police, who patrol Searchlight, reported no arrests and one call “regarding a individual with a gun in an open holster,” a police statement said.
Police put the crowd estimate at about 9,000, while organizers claimed more than twice as many.
The rally is meant to kick off a national tour of smaller events organized by Tea Party Express, a Sacramento-based political action committee. The group is run by GOP political consultant Sal Russo. Another rally was held later in the day in a Las Vegas suburb, headlined by conservative author Ann Coulter.
Just down the road in Searchlight, about 50 Reid allies greeted cars heading to the rally with chants of “Harry! Harry!” Drivers responded with honks, thumbs down and a few middle fingers.
The Democrats’ signs -- “Welcome to Reid Country” -- were somewhat misleading. A recent poll showed that roughly one-third of Nevada voters had a positive opinion of Reid. Democrats struggle most in the state’s rural outposts, known for the sort of libertarian leanings and anti-tax views that match the tea party message.
“I like what they’re saying. It’s common sense,” Robert Shawn said of the tea party activists. The 51-year-old assistant kitchen manager at the Searchlight Nugget Casino, where some tea party backers asked him for directions, said he didn’t want to see the movement taken over by fringe views.
“If it becomes radical, it won’t work. They’ve got to focus on issues like keeping jobs here and lowering the cost of prescription drugs,” he said, adding that many protesters had asked him where the senator lives. “I’m not going to tell no one where he lives.”
Several tea party leaders have denounced violence and vandalism as a protest tactic.
At the same time, some of those leaders also cast doubt over whether reports of intimidation and window-smashing were exaggerated or made up by opponents to damage the tea party movement’s image. Conservative activists point to the incidents as another reason not to trust mainstream media and to blame the left.
“Thuggery is a tactic of the left wing,” Mark Williams, a Tea Party Express organizer, said from the stage. “We will not stand for it!”
Many activists were skeptical of reports that a racial slur was directed at Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) during a healthcare protest in Washington last weekend. In video of the noisy protest that has emerged on the Web, the purported obscenity is inaudible.
“They don’t have no true evidence of that,” said Joyce Bough, 64, a retired accountant from Bullhead City, Ariz. “I think that’s all made up.”
Her husband, Mel, nodded in agreement while holding a sign asking, “Is our freedom lost forever????”
Reid stayed clear of his hometown Saturday, instead campaigning at a Las Vegas shooting range. His campaign issued a statement: “Ultimately, though, this election will be decided by Nevadans, not people from other states who parachute in for one day to have a tea party.” The statement also thanked the tea party supporters for the economic boost they gave his hometown.