Speech pages rustling in a brisk breeze, Sarah Palin gazed Saturday across a sea of conservatives, perhaps 10,000 strong and holding signs calling for more freedom and less federal government, and issued a call to action for those who want to kick the Democrats out in 2010.
"We're not going to sit down and shut up," Palin, the GOP vice presidential candidate in 2008, shouted from the stage at a midday rally in the rock-scarred desert just outside the hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "We're taking our country back, and we're starting right here in Nevada."
The crowd erupted in applause and shouts of "Sarah, Sarah, Sarah." Some urged her to run for president in 2012, with cries of "run Sarah run, run Sarah run" as she took the stage.
Skywriters overhead painted slogans on the blue canvas, including "VOTE REID OUT," as she spoke. Thousands of cell phone cameras, glinting in the sun, snapped pictures of the GOP darling. When she was done speaking, the crowds started leaving en masse, the main draw gone.
"I voted for Palin in 2008 and McCain was just along for the ride," said Mary Hartley of Rosamond, Calif., referring to GOP presidential candidate Arizona Sen. John McCain. She wore an "I love Sarah Palin" button beside one that said, "I love the Constitution."
"I came here because I'm mad at the government, yes, for trampling on my rights. How can they make me pay for health care? But mostly I came to see Sarah Palin. This is my first Tea Party event, but it won't be my last."
Palin, who has become a sort of rock star for the Tea Party movement and GOP conservatives, rallied the crowd at the "Showdown in Searchlight" to kick off a cross-country Tea Party Express tour that will pass through 44 cities and end up in Washington, D.C., on April 15, Tax Day.
The Searchlight event was billed as the "conservative Woodstock," and at times it came close. Tailgaters grilled hot dogs, people sat in lawn chairs and wore sun hats and bandanas, and some of the mostly older, white crowd danced as Tea Party Express entertainers sang a few songs, including one to the tune of "New York, New York."
"This Socialist nightmare/must come to an end,
"We're going to take the House and Senate/in 2010," went one verse.
Mark Williams, chairman of the Tea Party Express, called the happening "raw democracy."
"This is a Woodstock you can remember," Williams told the crowd, standing on a makeshift stage on the back of an 18-wheeler parked between two prickly Joshua trees.
The Searchlight spectacle will go down in Nevada history as one of the state's largest political gatherings. Las Vegas police put the crowd count at a conservative 8,000 by 1 p.m. just after Palin spoke, while organizers -- citing media reports and a security firm -- gave a broad crowd estimate ranging from 9,000 up to 30,000 on the 160-acre site.
With people coming and going throughout the day, it appeared the event met or exceeded predictions that at least 10,000 would make the Searchlight trek.
Traffic was the biggest problem, with U.S. Highway 95 backed up for more than five miles in both directions as RVs, campers, trucks, trailers, cars and motorcycles streamed into the gravel road site.
Former state Sen. Sue Lowden, who is running in the GOP primary with a dozen candidates for a chance to face Reid in the fall, said she took advantage of the gridlock to do some retail politicking.
"We were in bumper-to-bumper traffic, so I got off the bus and worked the crowd," said Lowden, who took two hours to travel 55 miles from Las Vegas to be among several dozen Nevada candidates seeking a chance to address the Tea Party rally for a couple minutes each.
Former Reno Assemblywoman Sharron Angle made the most dramatic entrance, arriving in a black leather outfit on the back of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, riding in with a group called Bikers for Jesus.
"It's wonderful to have Americans fighting for freedom," Angle said, hair tousled from the ride, her cowboy boots covered in dust. "We blew right by all the traffic coming from Vegas."
U.S. Senate candidate Scott Ashjian, who has been derided by the Tea Party movement as an interloper for running under his own Tea Party of Nevada banner, made a stealthy appearance, although he allowed CNN to tag along as he met people in the crowd. He wasn't invited to speak.
"I was out there and shook a few hands," Ashjian said by telephone after he left the site without making any public waves, although he said one person got "pretty verbal" and denounced him. "It looked like a Republican convention to me, though, and not a real Tea Party event."
Craig Lake, a Republican running in the primary with the hope of facing Rep. Shelly Berkley, D-Nev., in November, came off the stage in wonder at the view of voters standing elbow to elbow and American flags fluttering with a healthy snap-snap-snap, whipped by strong desert winds.
"I got goose bumps," Lake said. "You can see flags and real Americans every which way you turn, in front of you, behind you, even on the hills."
Gov. Jim Gibbons, a Republican facing a difficult primary in which he's running behind, told the gathering that their votes will determine the outcome of elections in November and that it's up to them to select lawmakers such as him who are against raising taxes and are for smaller government.
"Today more than ever, all of us are getting out of the wagon and we're going to push," Gibbons said.
The crowd, however, was restless during the candidates' short talks. People wanted Palin.
'More of us than them'
The former Alaska governor's 20-minute speech, aimed at the discontented middle-class masses, was the highlight of the event, which attracted supporters from Nevada and several neighboring states who came decked in red, white and blue and colored in red-hot anger at the Obama administration.
Mostly, they're angry at health care reform and government bailouts of the banking and auto industries.
"There are more of us than them, and it's about time we spoke up," said Marlene Demarco of Las Vegas as she and what she called her "crazy conservative" friends arrived early Saturday to stake out a spot to hear Palin.
Demarco carried a sign saying: "Democrats you're fired."
"I was a stupid Democrat for 40 years, and then I wised up. They have just screwed us over and over again."
The emotions in the crowd didn't spill over into violence, however, or insults and racist rhetoric as feared after some Democratic lawmakers in Washington were verbally attacked last week after voting for health care reform.
Palin addressed the matter directly, blaming the "mainstream media" for suggesting conservatives and members of the Tea Party movement were inciting violence, including herself.
By telling Americans "it's not a time to retreat, it's a time to reload," Palin, a guns rights proponent, said she was "telling people that their arms are their votes."
"We're not inciting violence," she said, dismissing the idea as "a bunch of bunk."
The only incident reported was by the Tea Party Express, which said its bus was egged by Reid supporters as it traveled through Searchlight a couple miles away from the rally.
Egg whites and yolks dripped from the bus's windshield wipers as the convoy arrived on site, but it wasn't possible to verify who threw the eggs.
Reid, who was in Las Vegas to open a shooting park and later speak with former Vice President Al Gore at a dinner event, said he welcomed the gathering in the old mining town, where he was born in 1939.
"I'm glad they're there. That's what America is all about. It's a democracy," said Reid, who has been polling behind his top potential GOP opponents in the Senate race.
"I'm glad they know I live there. We need the business. Searchlight has been struggling like a lot of places in our country."
Earlier Saturday, dozens of Reid supporters started assembling at 8 a.m. on a cold windswept dusty lot across from the Searchlight Nugget, where the owner is a strong supporter of the senator.
They put up signs alongside U.S. Highway 95 saying: "Welcome to Reid country" for passing motorists to see on their way to the anti-Reid rally site 2.3 miles outside town.
The small signs competed with a huge billboard that said, "Will Rogers never met Harry Reid," a play on Rogers' comment that he never met a man he didn't like.
Beverly Ciciliano of Henderson drove to Searchlight after dawn to support Reid, and she denounced the Tea Party movement for coming to his hometown to target him for defeat.
"I think it's kind of odd to come to someone's hometown," Ciciliano said. "They seem to be pretty angry, and so I wanted to come out here and show my support for Senator Reid. He's done so much for Nevada."
Judy Hill, who has lived in Searchlight for 35 years and considers herself a friend of Reid's, said, "We are not here to be confrontational, just to show our support, and Senator Reid needs it."
Asked why Reid seems unpopular, Hill shook her head.
"People don't know him," she said. "Harry Reid loves this state. I think he's misunderstood and underappreciated."
The state Democratic Party, which organized the Reid event, said some 200 supporters from Nevada were stopping by for tea and doughnut holes in honor of the Medicare fix in the health care reform law.
"A leftist plan'
In her speech, Palin warned that in the coming days and months Reid would come back to Searchlight and Nevada and try to "sell you a leftist plan" and socialist programs.
She urged the crowd not to support him or President Barack Obama and the Democrats in power.
"Washington has broken faith with the people they are supposed to be serving," Palin said, adding that voters should tell Reid and the other Democrats, "You're fired."
Some people came out to the Tea Party rally just to watch the show.
Longtime Searchlight residents Barnes and Janice Miller climbed to the top of a hill so Barnes could shoot pictures of the event.
"This is pretty amazing," said Barnes Miller, 56, a 36-year resident of the community.
Both said they had no problem with the rally or people attending, but added that some of the anti-government rhetoric was an exaggeration.
"Marxist is pretty extreme," Janice Miller said, prompting her husband to add: "If this were truly that much of a Marxist country, this (rally) would never be happening."
At the rally, former "Saturday Night Live" performer Victoria Jackson, 50, delivered some of the most heated rhetoric after Palin had left and the crowd began to thin.
"We have a communist living in the White House, and he is giving free stuff to everyone," Jackson shouted. "We are going to stop it now."
Jackson performed a song about health care she called "I Hope I Don't Get Sick," which included a reference to Obama as "a communist dictator he's taking us to hell."
Others said the depiction of Tea Party enthusiasts as angry and extreme was inaccurate.
Speaker Andrew Breitbart challenged media reports about allegations Tea Party activists in Washington, D.C., hurled racial slurs at black congressmen en route to the Capitol.
Breitbart said he would pay $100,000 of his own money to charity if someone could prove the allegations were true and added that the media purposely depict the Tea Party enthusiasts as racist.
Shirley Wheaton-Spann, 47, Las Vegas, who is black, said she agreed with Breitbart's assertion that the Tea Party movement isn't racist.
"My biggest disappointment is there are not more blacks, more people of color, who listen or learn enough to say something is wrong," she said.
If someone makes the movement about race, Wheaton-Spann said, they have "missed the whole point."
As the last of the stragglers pulled onto U.S. 95 late in the afternoon, some stopped to sign a large white board on a trailer attached to a minivan owned by Bob Root, 68, of Shady Grove, Fla.
Root and his wife, Velinda, left Florida on Wednesday towing the board and intend to follow the entire tour, gathering signatures.
Root owns a small engineering firm and took time off to tow the billboard. He figures he will have driven about 11,000 miles and spent $4,000 to $5,000 of his own money on the signature project.
"It is kind of an expensive thing, but I think it is worth it," Root said. "People love to get their name on this, and they love to know it is going to Washington."
Review-Journal writer Alan Choate contributed to this report. Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919.