Sarah Palin was the belle of the ball Saturday at the Tea Party Express Showdown in Searchlight, the first stop of a 23-state, 44-city tour across the nation culminating in Washington, D.C., on April 15. In a windswept, dusty gravel pit dotted with old mining shafts, Palin had the grass-roots tea partiers on their feet cheering when she declared, “Harry, you’re fired.”
With American and Gadsen flags whipping in the wind, handmade signs waved as sky-writing airplanes spelled Tea Party slogans in smoke across the sky. Former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Palin, after campaign appearances last week with Arizona Sen. John McCain, trekked to Searchlight as the keynote speaker.
She told the enthusiastic crowd of over 10,000 that the Reid-Pelosi-Obama spending spree has not solved the nation’s problems and denounced the President’s healthcare reforms. She denounced his administration’s lectures, apologies and talking to the nation “like we can’t understand.”
“We get it, and we still don’t like it,” she said. “There’s something not quite right when Fidel Castro comes out and says he likes Obamacare when we don’t.”
What began as a Tax Enough Already protest one year ago has morphed into a sustained anti-Reid, Pelosi and Obama sentiment. The Searchlight rally was focused primarily on defeating Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in November, but the wide range of issues stirring tea partiers to action also opens the door to critics’ claims that the Tea Party is a fractious, unfocused movement lacking credibility.
Palin called for drilling for domestic oil, new nuclear power plants and the “use of our own God-given natural resources” to free the nation from its dependency on foreign energy sources. She reiterated her call for the grass-roots movement not to retreat, but to reload — then demanded that the media get her statement right, and rejecting the notion that she condones violence of any kind.
"Our arms are our votes,” Palin said. “Don’t let anyone tell Americans to sit down and shut up. Stand up and speak out. The government that rules least, rules best.”
Nevada GOP Gov. Jim Gibbons, who is running for another term, made his first appearance at a Tea Party event.
“They (elected officials) better start listening to groups like the Tea Party. Those who fail to listen are going to be voted out of office,” Gibbons said. “Voters don’t want to see the Constitution trampled — they are angry, they deserve to be listened to and this is going to be heard nationally.”
Though mostly unheard from, a small minority of birthers, truthers attended the gathering and demands for President Obama’s impeachment were voiced at the Searchlight rally. The primary focus was on out-of-control government spending, economic recovery, accountability, fiscal responsibility, jobs, ending bail outs, tax reforms, federal term limits and a return to conservative principals in Washington, D.C.
“We never expected this size of a crowd or this level of media attention,” said Tea Party Express volunteer Dennis Shilling. “After today, you have got to understand that the populace is frustrated when people turn out in this number.”
A number of candidates — 22 total, including 12 Republicans running for Reid’s Senate seat, and several running for the state’s District One and three seeking seats in the House of Representatives — asked for the tea partiers support. The official Tea Party of Nevada candidate, not associated with the Tea Party Express, was conspicuously absent. Scott Ashjian, facing felony charges over a $5,000 returned check he wrote and a legal challenge to his eligibility for candidacy, is regarded as a ringer by Tea Party Express organizers. They noted that Ashjian has never been seen at previous Tea Party events and may be backed by Reid’s supporters hoping to split the conservative vote and help win Reid’s re-election for a fifth Senate term.
Danny Tarkanian, Sue Lowdon and Sharon Engle are considered the Republican front-runners in the crowded field of candidates hoping to defeat Reid. Nevada’s Republican primary takes place June 8.
Searchlight, Harry Reid’s hometown with fewer than 1,000 residents, isn’t much of a place – meaning there isn’t much there. There’s a truck stop, trailer parks, two casinos, a motel and a couple of local businesses. The Searchlight Airport appears abandoned, but has aspirations of becoming a fly-in airpark, someday. Were it not for the reduced speed limit on Highway 95 through town, drivers could, and some did, miss the place completely. Out past a trailer park and self-storage yard is Harry Reid Road. It’s a dead end street.
That’s not to say it isn’t a friendly little town. The police had one unconfirmed report of a fist fight near the rally and one of a person seen legally carrying a holstered pistol, but there were no arrests or citations. The biggest headache for police was directing traffic.
The locals were amused by the Tea Party Express with some expressing support for the rally and others loyal to their hometown boy. It was out-of-town protestors opposed to the rally who caused a real showdown with Internet entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart outside the Nugget Casino.
One of several hundred people prevented from driving into the rally, Breitbart parked in town and noticed one protestor holding a sign mischievously directing Tea Partiers in the wrong direction. Breitbart approached the group to ask why they supported Reid and witnessed several protestors throwing eggs at the Tea Party Express buses. As the egg-throwers scurried away, Breitbart was surrounded by protestors and heard one say, “I’m going to have to go to jail today if this guy (Breitbart) doesn’t leave.”
Before the threat was acted on the police arrived, apparently called by one of the protestors. Breitbart was interrogated by police about the bus eggings, but after identifying himself, he was allowed to depart for the rally.
“It’s unsettling to see them use threats and provocation like this,” said Breitbart of the protestors’ actions after unconfirmed accusations by Democrats of threats of violence and thuggery from Tea Party supporters.
Organizers initially expected a turnout of 2,000, maybe 3,000 – until Congress passed the health care reform legislation a week ago. The number in attendance surged to more than 10,000 tea partiers. Some estimated the crowd at more than 15,000. Whatever the numbers, the place was packed to overflowing.
While local businesses viewed the Tea Party influx as an economic shot in the arm for the town, there were those not happy about the rally being held on an old mining property that overlooks Reid’s home. On Friday, Nevada State Troopers informed the organizers that no parking would be allowed on the shoulders of Highway 95 running past the mine property, but by noon on Saturday hundreds of vehicles were gridlocked for miles in both directions. After the entrance road was closed, hundreds of people parked on the shoulder and walked in.
Norman Halfpenny, a rally volunteer handling traffic, noted all the window blinds were closed at the Reid homestead just south of the event venue, giving the appearance that nobody was home. Reid was reportedly in Las Vegas meeting with National Rifle Association executives. He issued a statement acknowledging the Tea Partiers right to assemble and thanked them for the monetary boost to the town.
“Ultimately,” Reid’s statement scoffed, “this election will be decided by Nevadans, not people from other states who parachute in for one day to have a tea party.”
Bill Parsons, one of 22 in the field of candidates for Reid’s Senate seat asked, “How many dollars in campaign funds do professional politicians like Reid get from out of state sources?”
In a tourism-dependent and politically moderate state hit hard by record number home foreclosures and bankruptcies, double-digit unemployment and President Obama’s negative comments about Las Vegas, Reid’s poll numbers show him vulnerable after his arm-twisting orchestrations leading up to last week’s passage of healthcare reform.
Pam Lobeu, a Lake Havasu City resident gave a humorous take on the cool, breezy weather and Reid’s tax-and-spend record.
“It was so cold in Searchlight today that Harry Reid was spotted with his hands in his own pockets,” she quipped.
The howling high-desert winds failed to cool the fervor of the ‘Showdown in Searchlight’ tea partiers, but with the winds of change coming from the Tea Party, Harry Reid may be feeling the chill of a looming defeat in November.